Cambridge Climate Change Vulnerability work

Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment Public Meeting


Suzanne Rasmussen from CDDexplained the threats we face due to climate change.

Heat waves


Sea level rise/storm surges

Impact public safety/health/economy with a significant range of impacts on our daily life.

Ms. Rasmussen noted that the City’s hope is to create a plan that helps us minimize and then bounce back from damages quicker and that our vulnerability assessment is not detracting from our efforts to mitigate our impacts on climate change

Owen O’Reardon (Head of DPW)

A lot of infrastructure is regional in nature, such as electric and water supplies, transportation, telecommunications

Lots of effort have already gone into drainage issues already, but that’s likely not to be enough for future changes in hydrology, precipitation and so forth

The City is looking, along with Mass DOT and others, at how sea level rise and storm surge will impact people in the area and the various systems they depend on


Sam Lipson, Director of Environmental Health for Cambridge


Public health participates in this process because people’s health and access to health care, as well as the increased risks of certain types of diseases, builds a sort of invisible infrastructure of services and people.  It is tough to figure out the future exactly, but things like heat waves can cause poor air quality (smog) and the longer and hotter the heat wave, the worse the air quality.  In turn, that leads to increases in breathing-related problems and emergencies, which, in turn, impact emergency services and other resources.  Also, diseases may increase with ‘vector born’ diseases such as those carried by mosquitoes and ticks (both the diseases carried and the species carrying them).  And heat vulnerability is a problem as well- again, the hotter and longer, the more people are impacted independent of breathing issues.


John Bolduc, CDD Project Manager


Overall, this is a two phase project that came out of Climate Protection Action Committee suggestion.   The first phase is the Vulnerability Assessment, the second phase is the plan to address the issues the assessment raises.

The Vulnerability Assessment: is a science-based assessment of how flooding, temperature changes and so forth impact our people, services and infrastructure.  Then the City ranks the threats to see what vulnerabilities we need to focus on in what order.  It’s important for the community to be part of this discussion as we’re all- people, businesses, schools, city- going to be part of this resilience and we’ll be asked to do serious stuff individually and as groups and organizations.  The hope is that the assessment will be done by December, 2014 (the hydrology study is proving to be more time consuming than anticipated).  The city will do the response plan after that.  A variety of departments are on the working group, with a consultant team led by Kleinfelder.  There are subconsultants and all sorts of stakeholders like universities and various state agencies working on these same issues, on their own or with Cambridge and even the coordination of all of these efforts is complex.  It is important to explain the issues in relation to economic and public health terms that people can more easily understand, but it is super complicated and inter-related and there are all sorts of studies and models they’re working on to collect and distribute data.

Jennifer  Lawrence from CDD

There is a need to have input from the public as well as input from the Technical Advisory Panel and Technical Advisory Committee.  They’ve presented at 40 local groups and got well over 300 survey submissions from all over, of which 83% say they expect climate change to impact them.  On top of that, they’re really coordinating with other regional partners.  The first step is science heavy, doing the research, figuring out the scenarios as best they can.  The second part is doing the vulnerability and risk assessment part, figuring out what needs to be done when and why ad then creating the plan to address the vulnerabilities.  They are looking at lessons learned from other things like Hurricane Sandy or other extreme events, as well as at environmental justice, environmental resources (urban forests) andour  built environment.  And, of course, at the infrastructure needed to support the community

This work relies heavily on GIS to pull in all of the data.  Climate change story is one that is best told with graphics as well as text and the City will continue to fill in details, but there are going to be data gaps regardless.  Things like roadways, parking spaces, garages, electric utility distribution systems, rail line usage and so forth all have data points the City puts into GIS  to figure out how heavily things are used and how changes in these systems’ availability might impact the City and its various residents.  For example, if an asset goes down, such as Alewife T getting flooded, there may be serious ripple effects.

Independent of this meeting, I was sent the following link to a searchable inundation map for Massachusetts:

The map for how Cambridge  floods (in a hurricane, not a Nor “Easter, which arguably could be worse) looks like this:

Cambridge Hurrican innundation zone



?         Will GIS info be available?  Is it now?

  1. Not clear what will eventually be made public, but the general thought is that it will be as available as possible when it’s done.

?         What about collaboration with Somerville, Boston, etc.

  1. Collaboration with MADOT (they’re looking at the central arterial tunnels and flooding), MassPort (looking at the airport and maritime facilities they control) and others.  Jen and John both sit on State’s adaptation subcommittee, working with South Shore towns to address sea level rise concerns, etc.

?          What sort of severe weather are they talking about

  1. Category II hurricane, but with a lot of assumptions on what that looks like.  They’re trying to do modeling with sea level rise, but for right now are using the Army Corps of Engineers Inundation maps which factor in high tides and so forth.  In Boston area, we’ve had two category 3s and five category 2s and a bunch of cat 1s, not necessarily direct hits.  Nor’Easters tend to have higher surge values, though we seem to focus on hurricanes.  (You can see the DPW’s webpage about stormwater here, complete with links to floodmaps).

?         What about the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act

  1. This act reviews the impact of climate change on things like Wetlands Protection Act and other similar programs.

?         What about the local dams

  1. The assumption is that the dams (on on the Charles and one on the Mystic) would be overtopped in these inundation maps with a 12.5 foot surge.  The Charles River Basin would get inundated first by water bypassing the dam through East Cambridge and so forth.  One question is how accurately the topography has been captured in these mapping studies and what that means in terms of actual risk and the ability to armor areas against sea rise by building dykes between high points.  Owen wasn’t sure if the inundation maps reflected all the pumps working at the dams.


Public participation Exercise

This exercise was broken down into 5 geographical groups representing different areas of Cambridge and focused on two questions:

?         What would a really bad heat wave do to your daily life?  At least 10 days of 90+ degree heat (we had 8 days of that several years ago) and we had no power for a total of ten hours during that time

?         What would a really bad, 24 hour flood do to your daily life?  This could be from a lot of rain or a storm surge


  • Discussion should consider community resources like parks, pools, commuting resources, schools, grocery stores- not so much the direct impact on those things, but what the impact would be on people if those resources were impacted.

When we concluded, the various groups’ public wrap-up mostly revolved around these issues:

  1. Access to information, building a strong person-to-person set of relationships in a neighborhood matter, knowing your neighbors (especially ones who might need assistance)
  2. Lack of electricity impacting AC and heating systems, elevator use, impact on food storage and distribution systems
  3. Fear that small businesses would be completely lost in a flood and would never recover
  4. Loss of civil society, looting, unsafe areas due to stress from heat or mass flooding
  5. It would be helpful to have a pre-set list of volunteers, expectations of where folks might go in emergencies (cooling centers, etc).  Perhaps have emergency shelters aimed at specific populations (like kids or elderly)
  6. Post-flood catastrophic flood damage, to include toxins, biological and radiation contamination, sewer flooding, floating gas tanks, could really make and keep large parts of Cambridge uninhabitable.  Clean up would be horrible and we would have to deal with rats and other pests
  7. Noise levels from generators being run during power outages would bother people sleeping outside or with windows open
  8. Salt water inundation during a flood could cause particular problems
  9. How might any evacuation process take place was not clear
  10. In power outage, buildings with inoperable windows may have horrible air quality issues if air handlers stop working
  11. Backup communication for when power runs out will require pre-planning as cell phones die, towers go down, home cordless phones don’t work, routers for wireless stop
  12. People don’t really understand what is likely to happen when these systems start to fail and that may make preparation and response require more effort and training.  Truly big problems, like massive flooding, will have not just ripple effect but wave effects across our communities in ways we cannot yet anticipate
  13. Even with warning, getting stuff out of flood reach could be a lot of trouble
  14. Turning of gas and, especially, electricity will be important to keep structures safe, yet many people do not know how to do this
  15. Sewage issue alone would force people to leave in large numbers
  16. Economic component to these events, especially flooding, would be huge in terms of business revenue loss, property value depreciation, tax revenue and more

Next large public meeting will probably be when the assessment has some more solid results, prior to moving on with the plan.

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