Published on Friday, March 10, 2000 in the Boston Globe
EPA Funds Study Of Global Warming Effects On Coastal Cities
by Robert Braile

Tufts University is about to launch a groundbreaking three-year study on the effects of climate change on Boston and 100 other communities within Interstate 495, an area that yesterday set an all-time high temperature for this day in March.

Funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the project will examine how a warming planet, from rising sea levels to increasingly erratic weather, affects vital water, sewer, highway, and other infrastructure systems that serve Greater Boston. The $900,000 study may serve as a national model for the potential effects of climate change on coastal cities.

''The warming of the Earth's atmosphere could have a profound effect on every aspect of life in the metropolitan Boston area,'' said Mindy Lubber, the EPA's acting New England administrator. ''Tunnels, communications lines, power plants, buildings, sewers, water systems, and every possible physical structure in the region could be affected.''

Lubber said the project will begin finding out what these impacts might be and how the region can plan accordingly to minimize the risks and possible damage.

Tufts, which is teaming with Boston University on the study, will begin work at a March 24 meeting on its Medford campus of university researchers, government officials, and industry leaders. The study comes amid a surge of new findings on global warming and climate change. By some accounts, the planet has warmed as much as 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century, and will warm by another 2 to 8 degrees in the next.

This past week, Worldwatch Institute reported that the planet's glaciers, icecaps, and sea ice are melting at the fastest rate since the start of record-keeping 150 years ago. The EPA reported that America's industrial air emissions, which fuel global warming, rose .5 percent from 1997 to 1998 despite efforts to reduce them. The European Union proposed an international emissions trading system to combat global warming.

At the same time, the world's blueprint for solving global warming - the Kyoto Protocol - remains stalled. The agreement was signed in 1997 by about 150 countries, including the United States, calling for a range of emissions reductions by 2012.

The countries must ratify the agreement for it to take effect, and by a complicated formula, ratification by the United States is pivotal. But the White House has yet to submit it to the US Senate for ratification, as the Senate has made it clear it will reject it, arguing that it fails to impose emissions reductions on developing countries like China.

But as those developments suggest, much of the news about global warming, and the research on which it is based, tends to be global in nature. The Tufts study stands out in focusing on a specific metropolitan region, reflecting a need for more information of that kind as well as the reality that most Americans now live in urban and suburban areas, and by 2050, most of the world will.

''So it's important that we begin to think about the impacts of climate change on these areas,'' said Paul Kirshen, a research associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts. He is overseeing a team of 15 researchers on the study, the first of its kind in the country, he said. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council is also assisting.

Kirshen said the study will focus on such potential problems as the vulnerability of tall buildings to howling winds and rising water tables, the latter weakening foundations. Those winds may also blow down transmission towers and lines, jeopardizing energy supplies. As the heat rises, so too may heat-related health problems from asthma to insect infestation. More wet, stormy weather may result in more frequent transportation delays everywhere from Logan Airport to the T, and overwhelm sewer systems, he said.

People may react differently in a warmer city, exacerbating some of those physical impacts, and that too will be studied, Kirshen said. For instance, the warmer the weather, the more water and energy people use. ''So the infrastructure may get it in two ways - the physical impacts, and the social and economic impacts,'' he said.

''If we don't address these issues, the price we pay may be huge,'' said Lubber, of the EPA. ''Disruptions to infrastructure can be costly, as we in the Boston area learned during the flood of 1996. This extreme weather caused $70 million in property damage and disrupted transportation for thousands of people. The Central Artery project has shown us that the costs of modifying and repairing our infrastructure can be exorbitant.''

Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company