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MIT Sea Grant students help develop climate-change plan for Chelsea

Aerial view of Chelsea
Aerial view of Chelsea
Courtesy of MIT Sea Grant

The city of Chelsea, Massachusetts, has a new plan for adapting to climate change, thanks to a group of students from MIT Sea Grant and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). MIT Sea Grant sponsored and mentored the WPI students, who created two documents on climate-change risks that Chelsea is now incorporating into its planning process.

Chelsea is a densely populated coastal city just north of Boston, with the most diverse population in the state. Almost half of its land is in the federally designated 100-year flood plain, having been built on filled-in wetlands. The people, their businesses, and infrastructure are highly vulnerable to flooding.

Coastal cities in New England are already seeing an increase in flooding from storms and tides; future sea-level rise will only make this problem worse. While there is variation in just how much sea levels will rise — with estimates ranging from one to four feet for the northeast region by 2100 — there isn’t much question that it will continue to rise. For perspective, risk projections show that even a sea-level rise of two feet would more than triple the frequency of coastal flooding in this region.

Chelsea is currently undergoing a push to develop an area called Everett Avenue. Successful development like this is very important for economically depressed areas, where negative impacts from climate change can have devastating effects. City leaders recognized the need for climate adaptation planning when considering development, but they lacked the resources and expertise necessary to update their decision-making processes. The resources that WPI and MIT Sea Grant provided seemed to have come at the perfect time.

During their junior year, WPI students participate in an Interactive Qualifying Project, an interdisciplinary requirement that connects science and technology with social issues and human needs. MIT Sea Grant co-sponsored and mentored a team of WPI students who worked directly with the Chelsea coastal municipality to identify the city’s vulnerabilities and options for adaptation. 

The WPI students did a thorough literature search, including an assessment of freely available databases and information repositories with examples of risk assessments and climate adaptation plans. They learned to use mapping software and accessed city topographic information, as well as municipal building locations. They traveled into Boston and conducted interviews with board members and developers.

“It was very important for the students to learn what information was needed from board member’s perspectives, as well as from the perspective of developers,” says Seth Tuler, co-director of the Boston Project Center at WPI. “The students gained insight into the process of city planning and, perhaps more importantly, the best ways to present that information to groups of people that come from different backgrounds with difference priorities.”

The end result was a set of guidance documents and a final report that would help the city more easily incorporate climate change projections into its decision-making process. These documents are currently in use by the city's Zoning Board of Appeals, Planning Board, and Conservation Commission.

Awareness and planning for climate change impacts can save cities such as Chelsea enormous amounts in both financial and social capital, significantly reducing negative impacts of climate change, according to MIT Sea Grant. Building on this success, MIT Sea Grant is continuing it’s collaboration with WPI and Chelsea later this year, when a new group of students will examine climate risk and vulnerability in a selection of Chelsea’s publically-owned properties.

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