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‘God Only Knows’: As Sea Level Rise Threatens Harvard and Greater Boston Area, Experts Mull Mitigation Strategy

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For residents of Boston and its constituent neighborhoods, their proximity to the Charles River, Boston Harbor, and the Atlantic Ocean has long been an asset.

But as global temperatures steadily increase, experts predict that the resulting sea level rise and flooding will encroach on the Greater Boston Area — including Harvard’s campus.

Over the past century, sea levels increased by “nine inches relative to land,” according to a 2016 study commissioned by the City of Boston. The current rate of sea level rise, however, has significantly accelerated: the report projects that, from 2016 to 2030, the rate of sea level rise could triple, resulting in an eight inch increase relative to land.

Furthermore, the city estimates that water levels could be three feet higher in 2070 than they were in 2000, if they continue to rise at their current pace.

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As sea levels rise, the report adds, floods become more frequent and severe. Annualized losses, per the city, from a three-foot increase in water and the ensuing flooding could amount to nearly $1.39 billion.

Harvard, with its sprawling campus and proximity to the Charles River, has long been at risk of damage from sea level rise and coastal flooding.

Before Harvard owned more land in Boston than in Cambridge, much of the Allston area the University has recently developed was low-lying marshland patterned by nuisance flooding.

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Atop the land where farmers used to grow water-loving crops now stands the Business School, the Athletic Complex, the newly completed $1 billion Science and Engineering Complex, and dozens of other structures planned or recently built.

As Harvard churned out these developments, the City of Boston’s 2016 Climate Ready Boston report named Allston the Charles River neighborhood with the highest near-term flooding exposure. In 2013, the World Bank ranked Boston as the eighth city globally most vulnerable to flooding.

William N. “Will” Brownsberger ’78, president pro tempore of the Massachusetts Senate, whose constituency includes some Allston neighborhoods, said developments downstream of the Charles River Dam are among the areas vulnerable to flooding in the next three decades.

“They thought they were building a dam that would hold back basically any storm,” Brownsberger said of the dam’s construction.

But by around 2050, he said, there is a “material risk” the dams will “be overtopped or flanked.”

Lifting Widener

Harvard Graduate School of Design urban design professor Alex Krieger has sat on several committees involved in Harvard’s expansion into Allston. Krieger said developers are doing “as much as one can” given what they know about Boston’s climate scenario.

Raising ground levels by two feet, installing stormwater management systems, and building with rainfall-permeable materials all figure into Allston plans, according to Krieger.

Harvard’s Allston Science and Engineering Complex, set to fully open this fall, boasts a greenspace landscaped to mitigate the effects of a “100-year flood” — a term for a severe flooding event that has a one in 100 chance of occurring in a given year. The building’s foundation encloses two cisterns designed to collect and disperse stormwater, according to School of Engineering and Applied Sciences spokesperson Paul Karoff.

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The project notification form for Harvard’s planned Enterprise Research Campus, another Allston outcrop, notes that the area is not within a FEMA-designated floodplain. Still, developers will “go above-and-beyond current resiliency standards” and will be able to manage a “32-year flood,” according to the document.

Krieger said he believes there is not much developers can do to protect existing structures along the Charles, like the River Houses, athletic fields, and the Business School.

But Krieger, a self-described optimist, said he believes humanity will resolve the climate crisis before it creates a sea level rise scenario that would greatly threaten Harvard’s campus.

“It’s tough to actually imagine a solution as the situation worsens and worsens as opposed to intermediate solutions with the hope that ultimately we will be able to, if not reverse, at least slow down things such as sea level rise or climate change,” he said.

Krieger said he thinks “the most immediate issues” for infrastructure along the Charles River is the flooding that will result from increased storms, rather than sea level rise. He added that a building’s short-term ability to capture and disperse water is what counts.

Krieger said raising the ground level can also safeguard Allston developments “for a conceivably long time,” but went on to say it is difficult to plan for the next century based on current projections.

By contrast, Princeton geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer said he thinks Harvard can — and should — plan for the next century.

“The idea that you can only plan so far ahead, I think, is wrong,” he said. “Not thinking about what’s going to happen beyond essentially 2050 is ludicrous because you have to.”

Sea level rise and flooding projections for the next three decades are relatively certain, according to Oppenheimer, a former Cambridge resident and a lead author on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Beyond that things get a little slippery,” he said.

If Harvard intends to construct riverside buildings that will last as long as the centuries-old Harvard Yard has, he said the University needs to brave the uncertainty and commit to planning for the full 21st century.

“My guess is they’re trying to do the cheap and easy thing, which is plan for 2050, build for 2050, and hope the worst case doesn’t happen beyond that,” Oppenheimer said. “It’s up to them whether they want to pass off the costs of not making a cautious decision to future generations.”

Oppenheimer said that “simple measures” — like raising the ground level and equipping buildings with water dispersal capabilities — are likely enough to keep campus resilient through the mid-century. But beyond that, he said, sea walls, surge barriers, and anything “permanent concrete and steel” may be required for the several feet of sea level rise Boston may see this century.

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Krieger floated examples of more drastic solutions to the rise: raising buildings on stilts, leveeing Memorial Drive, or ultimately relocating buildings.

Moving buildings away from high-risk areas is not inconceivable, he added. Buildings were relocated as Harvard’s campus grew to overtake parts of Cambridge and as the MBTA subway’s Red Line expanded.

“There are limits,” he noted, referring to relocation. “Whether or not you could lift Widener, right?”

As for what Harvard’s campus will look like in 2070, Krieger was blunt.

“God only knows,” he said.

‘Moving Inland’

Tufts University urban planning professor Justin B. Hollander said that while Bostonians talk more about sea level rise “than the average city,” Boston is largely “failing” to incorporate that thinking into urban planning.

As an example, Hollander cited the Seaport District — a flashy waterfront development that cost $18 billion in public funds, yet will be very soon subject to costly flooding, according to projections.

“If you look at the Seaport district, which is at sea level, as is most of the Harvard campus, you really just have to wonder...the disconnect between the planning function and the way that development happens in the city,” Hollander said.

Hollander said very few Greater Boston localities — Cambridge included — have taken action to force developers to combat sea level rise, adding that the “cost is just so enormous” for both cities and universities like Harvard.

Cambridge-based architect Franziska R. Amacher said she believes “thinking about moving inland” is the “only long-term alternative,” though she acknowledges the enormous challenges such plans would impose on “existing communities.”

Krieger said a more radical approach to protecting Boston would be connecting the islands and estuaries that dot Boston Harbor into a causeway.

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Architect Peter P. Papesch ’60, co-chair of the Sustainability Education Commission at the Boston Society for Architecture, suggested going further out to sea. He alternatively proposed a $50 to $80 billion “Metro Boston dike barrier” megaproject that would encircle Boston beginning from Lynn, Mass. and ending down in Hingham, Mass. from eight miles out into the Atlantic.

Papesch said either the city will have to stomach a “huge expenditure” to protect Greater Boston — or otherwise retreat from the area.

Papesch warned that few are willing to talk about this issue. Architects are worried about losing their contracts should they raise sea level rise concerns, and city officials do not want to raise alarm among real estate developers that back them, according to him.

“Just like the architects with their clients, [city officials] are not really ready to jeopardize their finances by saying: ‘Hey guys, you are in deep shit,’” Papesch said.

Among those to break the silence on this issue is a frontrunner in Boston’s mayoral race, Michelle Wu ’07, who has focused much of her 2021 campaign on climate change. She has specifically called attention to the rising sea level in New England, which she calls an “issue of public sector responsibility.”

“It doesn’t help when we have shiny new commercial buildings that just end up pushing the water to residential areas that can’t afford these adaptations on their own, or to infrastructure like our streets and MBTA stations,” she said. “This is really about a city-wide and regional conversation, and how we can move to match the urgency and scale of what we’re seeing.”

Brownsberger said local governments have collaborated with Harvard to solve various local environmental issues. He said he initially thought municipalities would have longer environmental planning timelines than a university like Harvard, but found that the opposite was the case.

“Harvard as an institution tends to have the longest planning horizon of anybody,” Brownsberger said.

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Wu, likewise, called Harvard an “anchor institution” and “major partner” to the City of Boston, including collaborations on environmental issues.

Adding to the symbiosis, Harvard is reliant on municipalities for guidance in severe flooding situations.

A 2014 Boston Green Ribbon Commission report on university disaster response, which included interviews with Harvard spokespeople, concluded that Harvard is especially dependent on “external systems,” like utilities and government agencies for disaster response in a Charles River extreme flooding scenario.

‘Living Systems’

For Justin L. Brown, a climate justice activist with the Allston-Brighton Node of 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future, one of the most frightening aspects of rising sea levels is that the flooding and damage residents are currently experiencing is merely “the result of emissions of historic emissions” and not present fossil fuel consumption.

Though he acknowledged there is still time to “head off the worst of the climate crisis,” he noted the delay between fossil fuel emission and sea level rise makes mitigation more challenging.

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“Even if we were to somehow magically stop all fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions right now, we would still see an increase in the effects moving forward,” he said.

The reality, per Brown, is that certain neighborhoods of Boston along the coastline and along the Charles River will inevitably become “uninhabitable” as sea levels continue to rise.

As a result, Brown said the “smart thing to do” in the short-term is to conduct “managed retreats” from areas that are liable to severe flooding according to scientific projections. Such areas would then return to their natural state, since natural barriers, he added, are “so much better equipped at lessening and mitigating the effects of rising seas.”

Deputy director of the Charles River Watershed Association Julie D. Wood said the CRWA also favors “nature-based solutions” to rising sea levels.

“These are basically engineered systems that use natural processes,” she added. “So in the case of coastal flooding that might mean reestablishing coastal wetlands where they were historically.”

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Green Cambridge director Steven Nutter also said policy makers ought to view areas and buildings liable to flooding from a “systems perspective,” recognizing that sites vulnerable to flooding are part of “living systems” and that individual landowners cannot be solely responsible for mitigation.

Nutter said, in addition, that decision makers should look beyond just property damage and acknowledge the substantial “human” cost of regional flooding.

“From a human perspective, it’s definitely going to be those who we already know are most vulnerable — both financially vulnerable because of the systems of our society but also, potentially, health vulnerable because the increased moisture could also increase mold in buildings, which decreases indoor air quality and causes respiratory problems,” Nutter added.

Undergirding policy changes on any level of government, according to Brown, must be a commitment to environmental justice, which he said involves identifying and remedying “past injustices.”

“Those that feel the effects first and worst of the climate crisis are those with the fewest number of resources,” Brown said. “It tends to affect mostly low-income communities, Black communities, brown communities — communities that have historically been burdened with all kinds of other injustices including housing injustice, economic injustice, racial injustice.”

Brown said he and other activists hope to empower individuals to challenge the “entrenched and powerful interests” that are responsible for the climate crisis.

‘A Huge Role to Play’

Harvard has taken a proactive step towards mitigating damage from future floods, recently offering to front the $50 million cost of an expanded water and sewer storm drain that will service around 100 acres of mainly residential neighborhoods.

“More than 1,500 households in North Allston will directly benefit from this substantial upgrade to the City’s infrastructure,” Harvard spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke said. “In the event of a significant storm, this new project will protect thousands of residents and property owners from flooding and property damage.”

As an alternative or as a supplement to such infrastructure, per CRWA director Wood, Harvard can use its “unique” influence in the Boston area to play a role in regional flooding mitigation by dedicating developed land to restore original tidelands.

Hollander said he believes Harvard should also consider propping up buildings — especially the River Houses — on stilts, though Krieger cautioned that this approach could create accessibility issues.

But some experts pointed out the University could simply get ahead of rising sea waters by taking swift and decisive action on climate change.

William E. “Bill” McKibben ’82 — environmentalist and former president of The Crimson, who has been vocal in his support of the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard movement — said he believes the University’s best protection is large-scale divestment from fossil fuels in an attempt to “bring climate change under control” rather than through adaptation.

“[Divestment is] going to be a lot easier than trying to figure out how to maneuver on a wrecked planet, which is what we’re headed towards,” he said. “Individual institutions with as much power as Harvard have a huge role to play in trying to keep the temperature from going up more than it has to.”

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Wu, who previously served as the president of Boston City Council, noted that the city has in the past had to push Harvard “to match community needs” regarding environmental concerns.

In a Feb. 2021 Boston Globe op-ed, Harvard Management Company’s Kathryn I. “Kate” Murtagh wrote that “well intentioned” calls for divestment “fail to address the demand side of the equation.”

“Harvard could, theoretically, commit to not owning shares of fossil fuel companies (we don’t currently own any), but that would not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the real economy,” she wrote.

In a 2020 statement, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced Harvard’s endowment would be greenhouse gas neutral by 2050, though some students and activists like McKibben have still slammed the move as insufficient.

“By the time Allston goes underwater, the world is going to be a deeply chaotic place,” McKibben said. “Allston is a good symbol that there’s no escaping climate change.”

—Staff writer James R. Jolin can be reached at james.jolin@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at natalie.kahn@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @natalielkahn.

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at simon.levien@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

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