Alison Branco, climate adaptation director for the Nature Conservancy, at...

Alison Branco, climate adaptation director for the Nature Conservancy, at Sandspit Marina in Patchogue on Tuesday. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

By Earth Day 2050, large swaths of Jones Beach could start to disappear.

In 2080, the historic Montauk lighthouse and Orient Point may be on their own islands, cut off from the rest of Long Island by newly formed rivers.

At the end of this century, Fire Island may be little more than a sandbar separating the Atlantic from the Great South Bay. And South Shore coastal neighborhoods from Freeport to Hampton Bays could be uninhabitable.

These are some of the likely scenarios for Long Island's 1,600 miles of vulnerable shorelines, according to climate scientists and environmentalists, who, citing numerous studies, said rising ocean and bay tides will alter how Islanders live, work and play. The pace and severity of nature's makeover is uncertain, and most of the Island — especially inland areas far from the coasts — will be spared the worst of it, experts said. But there is broad agreement that climate change will impact the Island — and residents and public officials must start planning for a flood-filled future.

“It’s really hard to accept, but the ocean is going to make that decision for us,” said Alison Branco, climate adaptation director for the Cold Spring Harbor office of the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit. “It doesn’t mean we can’t live here. It’s just going to look really different.”

Branco and other experts were quick to add the forecast is not all doom and gloom. Most aspects of Long Island life can be preserved, they said, by taking the following measures:

Elevate streets, septic systems, fuel tanks and storm drains high enough to be above projected future flood levels; , Build new bridges where roads are likely to be washed out by persistent flooding; , Create zoning codes that discourage future shoreline construction; , Prepare plans to evacuate coastal neighborhoods and move residents and businesses to drier inland communities, .

It won't be cheap, however, said Woodbury engineer John Cameron, adding Long Islanders will have little choice but to pay more in taxes, and higher fees and surcharges to avoid a collapse of the Island's economy.

“You‘re probably looking at [between] $75 [billion] and $100 billion” for new roads and other infrastructure improvements, said Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, a bicounty commission that studies economic trends and promotes a regional approach to development. 

“What happens if you don’t do it?" he said, adding it’s unclear how to pay the bills. “That takes some difficult decisions to make.”

Some experts point to North Carolina's Outer Banks, a barrier island where some homeowners have moved their houses to escape cresting ocean waves.

Janice Schaefer of Mastic Beach said she would be reluctant to leave her house overlooking Narrow Bay, despite flooding that has become noticeably worse in the 53 years she's lived there.

She and her husband, Frederick, both 77, thought they were ahead of the curve 20 years ago when they brought in truckloads of soil to raise their Riviera Drive house 3 to 4 feet. Lifting the house was intended to keep the family, whose roots in Mastic Beach trace to 1932, living in the hamlet for several more generations, Janice Schaefer said.

But worsening storms — such as the one a few days before last Christmas when "the water was over my knees,” she said — has her wondering whether her children and grandchildren will be forced to someday give up their "spectacular" waterfront views.

“You have to really think about that, and I think beyond my lifetime, that may be so,” Schaefer said. “Then you might have to think about relocating.”

In some ways, experts said, sea level rise could be worse, and more permanent, than Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which killed 13 people in Nassau and Suffolk and damaged or destroyed almost 100,000 homes and other structures. 

Sea level rise, which has averaged about 1.2 inches a decade in the past century, could accelerate to as much as an inch per year over the next several decades, according to numerous reports issued in recent years.

Seas off Suffolk County have risen about 6 inches since 2000 and could grow another 3 inches by 2030, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a report last year. After swelling almost another foot from 2030 to 2050, oceans could go into overdrive — expanding an additional 3 to 5 feet by 2100, NOAA said.

NOAA's estimates are similar to 2014 projections by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which forecast sea levels increasing as much as 30 inches by the 2050s, 58 inches by the 2080s and 75 inches — more than 6 feet — by the end of the century.

“We’re not going to stop sea level rise by turning a blind eye," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "We have to change the way we live and adapt to the new reality.” 

The rate of sea level rise is about double what it was in the 1990s, Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the United Nations' climate agency, said Friday.

Ocean levels rise because of a variety of factors related to temperature, scientists said.

Water expands as it becomes warmer, and seawater rises even more as warming temperatures melt Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, glaciers and icebergs, experts said.

Since 1901, the earth's temperature has risen 1.8 degrees and seas an average of 7 to 8 inches, according to a 2017 report by the federal U.S. Global Change Research Program. Average annual temperatures are expected to rise an additional 2.5 degrees through 2050, the report said.

"Global average sea levels are expected to continue to rise — by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1-4 feet by 2100," the report said. "A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out."

Changes to Long Island's coastlines will appear slowly — almost imperceptibly, experts said.

Each major storm will generate overwashes — waves that cover large areas before receding — and each will take away another layer of sand and sediment, they said.

“You don’t see it year to year," said Henry Bokuniewicz, a professor at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences who has studied climate change and sea level rise. "But the [home]owner who's been there for 30 years will suddenly realize it’s not like it used to be.”

How soon significant damage to coastal areas is seen, and how much erosion occurs at Long Island's beaches and barrier islands, is a matter of scientific debate.

Bokuniewicz said Montauk and Fire Island are in no imminent danger of being washed into the sea.

“We’re talking about millennia for that to happen,” he said. “Fire Island as an entity has a long time to go.”

But many researchers think a person born today will see a different Long Island within his or her lifetime.

Over the next couple of decades, Long Island's famous fish-shaped geography — with the North and South forks as the tail — likely will be dramatically reconfigured, Branco said.

Rising tides could turn Southold's Hashamomuck Pond into a river stretching from Long Island Sound to Shelter Island Sound, severing Greenpoint and Orient from the rest of the town, she said. On the South Fork, Napeague and Shinnecock bays could overwhelm the narrow strips of land that connect communities such as Hampton Bays, Amagansett and Montauk, she said. 

“It's really going to be a series of islands as opposed to the long peninsulas that we have now,” Branco said.

Rising tides will affect not only the South Shore but the North Shore, where higher waves are expected to erode the bases of bluffs and send them sliding into Long Island Sound.

Inland areas also could be affected as water levels rise on rivers and lakes, experts said. 

Climate change has been a factor in some recent decisions by county, town and village officials:

The Town of East Hampton in 2020 adopted a long-range voluntary buyout plan to encourage Montauk oceanfront businesses to move inland; , Roads such as Nassau Expressway in Hempstead Town were raised following Superstorm Sandy; , Since 2012, Suffolk County and Brookhaven have purchased dozens of Mastic Beach properties devastated by Sandy to prevent future development; , Southampton Town has spent $1 million in recent years to raise flood-prone Dune Road south of Quogue; , Islip Town, which includes South Shore communities such as Bay Shore, Oakdale and Bayport, is training staff in flood plain management to cut the number of homes that could be flooded, officials said; , Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in 2019 signed a bill requiring that sea level rise be taken into account when county public works officials plan major roadwork, The law could affect Montauk Highway and county routes 48 in Southold and 77 in Montauk,  .

Experts, while lauding these local efforts, said a comprehensive, regional plan is needed to combat floods before entire neighborhoods start sinking.

Some coastal communities such as Lindenhurst and Long Beach may simply become inhospitable to human habitation, said Kevin McAllister, president of Sag Harbor environmental nonprofit Defend H20. 

“These are locations that we just have to move back from,” he said. “Rather than building new roads, let’s dial out some properties and start moving inward.” 

Dorian Dale, director of sustainability for Suffolk County, said beach replenishment and wetlands restoration could help control erosion.

“You have both Democrats and Republicans on Long Island as committed environmentalists," he said. "So I think that’s a real big plus when we start looking at our capacity on Long Island to respond to all these challenges."

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell agreed that local officials must work together to avoid gaps in the Island's climate change plan.

“Towns cannot act independent of each other," Russell said. “We all have to get on the same page, right now. ... As a town, I’ll be candid, we do need to do more.”

For some homeowners, even if their homes survive, staying in them will be more and more expensive.

David W. Clausen, chief executive of Coastal Insurance Solutions in Rocky Point, said Fire lsland homeowners and residents of some South Shore communities will see significantly higher insurance bills if they are deemed to be at risk of severe floods.

“I think the bigger problem is it just won’t be affordable,” he said, adding homeowners could cut their bills by raising their houses. “At the end of the day, you just can’t mess around with Mother Nature.”

Esposito and others said it's not too soon to consider a "strategic retreat" from waterfronts by changing land-use rules to discourage coastline construction of new homes. 

“We have to accept the reality that building on the coast, with beautiful waterfront views, is dangerous," she said. 

Esposito and others said Long Island's famed barrier beaches will continue to serve as a vital buffer against powerful storms.

But their value as summer resorts likely will dwindle, experts said. Fire Island could still be a beautiful ocean beach, said Andrew Ashton, an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, but vacation homes on the island could be lost in a matter of decades.

“We can count the number of generations that are going to be able to use them,” Ashton said. “You can’t really imagine that your grandchildren will own the house [and use it] the same way that you use [it].”

Suzy Goldhirsh, a Manhattan resident whose family has owned Fire Island summer homes since the 1890s, said the effects of climate change are obvious.

Mainland ferry terminal parking lots flood more frequently, and ferries that once required one step to board at high tide now require two or three steps, she said.

Some Fire Island homeowners have elevated their houses as much as 8 or 9 feet, said Goldhirsh, president of the Fire Island Association, which represents home and business owners on the barrier island. 

Still, Goldhirsh fears future generations will go to Fire Island only for short day trips. They won't want to have a house there.

“There is something to be said for the human desire to live near the water," she said. "But that’s looking like something we’ve been doing for hundreds of years that now is not going to be sustainable.”

“Maybe we’re going to use coastal islands like Fire Island a little bit differently," she said. "We’re just going to have to adapt. We're going to have to live on Fire Island more safely.”

With Brianne Ledda and AP

By Earth Day 2050, large swaths of Jones Beach could start to disappear.

In 2080, the historic Montauk lighthouse and Orient Point may be on their own islands, cut off from the rest of Long Island by newly formed rivers.

At the end of this century, Fire Island may be little more than a sandbar separating the Atlantic from the Great South Bay. And South Shore coastal neighborhoods from Freeport to Hampton Bays could be uninhabitable.

These are some of the likely scenarios for Long Island's 1,600 miles of vulnerable shorelines, according to climate scientists and environmentalists, who, citing numerous studies, said rising ocean and bay tides will alter how Islanders live, work and play. The pace and severity of nature's makeover is uncertain, and most of the Island — especially inland areas far from the coasts — will be spared the worst of it, experts said. But there is broad agreement that climate change will impact the Island — and residents and public officials must start planning for a flood-filled future.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Sea levels around Long Island could rise as much as 6 feet by the end of the century, according to experts and numerous studies.
  • That is expected to wash away sections of barrier islands and make some shoreline neighborhoods uninhabitable.
  • Experts say local officials should start planning to raise roads, build bridges and possibly bar development in some coastal areas.

“It’s really hard to accept, but the ocean is going to make that decision for us,” said Alison Branco, climate adaptation director for the Cold Spring Harbor office of the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit. “It doesn’t mean we can’t live here. It’s just going to look really different.”

Branco and other experts were quick to add the forecast is not all doom and gloom. Most aspects of Long Island life can be preserved, they said, by taking the following measures:

  • Elevate streets, septic systems, fuel tanks and storm drains high enough to be above projected future flood levels;
  • Build new bridges where roads are likely to be washed out by persistent flooding;
  • Create zoning codes that discourage future shoreline construction;
  • Prepare plans to evacuate coastal neighborhoods and move residents and businesses to drier inland communities.

'Difficult decisions to make'

It won't be cheap, however, said Woodbury engineer John Cameron, adding Long Islanders will have little choice but to pay more in taxes, and higher fees and surcharges to avoid a collapse of the Island's economy.

“You‘re probably looking at [between] $75 [billion] and $100 billion” for new roads and other infrastructure improvements, said Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, a bicounty commission that studies economic trends and promotes a regional approach to development. 

“What happens if you don’t do it?" he said, adding it’s unclear how to pay the bills. “That takes some difficult decisions to make.”

Some experts point to North Carolina's Outer Banks, a barrier island where some homeowners have moved their houses to escape cresting ocean waves.

Janice Schaefer of Mastic Beach said she would be reluctant to leave her house overlooking Narrow Bay, despite flooding that has become noticeably worse in the 53 years she's lived there.

She and her husband, Frederick, both 77, thought they were ahead of the curve 20 years ago when they brought in truckloads of soil to raise their Riviera Drive house 3 to 4 feet. Lifting the house was intended to keep the family, whose roots in Mastic Beach trace to 1932, living in the hamlet for several more generations, Janice Schaefer said.

But worsening storms — such as the one a few days before last Christmas when "the water was over my knees,” she said — has her wondering whether her children and grandchildren will be forced to someday give up their "spectacular" waterfront views.

“You have to really think about that, and I think beyond my lifetime, that may be so,” Schaefer said. “Then you might have to think about relocating.”

In some ways, experts said, sea level rise could be worse, and more permanent, than Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which killed 13 people in Nassau and Suffolk and damaged or destroyed almost 100,000 homes and other structures. 

Reports: Sea level rise could accelerate

Sea level rise, which has averaged about 1.2 inches a decade in the past century, could accelerate to as much as an inch per year over the next several decades, according to numerous reports issued in recent years.

Seas off Suffolk County have risen about 6 inches since 2000 and could grow another 3 inches by 2030, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a report last year. After swelling almost another foot from 2030 to 2050, oceans could go into overdrive — expanding an additional 3 to 5 feet by 2100, NOAA said.

NOAA's estimates are similar to 2014 projections by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which forecast sea levels increasing as much as 30 inches by the 2050s, 58 inches by the 2080s and 75 inches — more than 6 feet — by the end of the century.

“We’re not going to stop sea level rise by turning a blind eye," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "We have to change the way we live and adapt to the new reality.” 

The rate of sea level rise is about double what it was in the 1990s, Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the United Nations' climate agency, said Friday.

Ocean levels rise because of a variety of factors related to temperature, scientists said.

Water expands as it becomes warmer, and seawater rises even more as warming temperatures melt Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, glaciers and icebergs, experts said.

Since 1901, the earth's temperature has risen 1.8 degrees and seas an average of 7 to 8 inches, according to a 2017 report by the federal U.S. Global Change Research Program. Average annual temperatures are expected to rise an additional 2.5 degrees through 2050, the report said.

"Global average sea levels are expected to continue to rise — by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1-4 feet by 2100," the report said. "A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out."

LI's coastline won't be 'like it used to be'

Changes to Long Island's coastlines will appear slowly — almost imperceptibly, experts said.

Each major storm will generate overwashes — waves that cover large areas before receding — and each will take away another layer of sand and sediment, they said.

“You don’t see it year to year," said Henry Bokuniewicz, a professor at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences who has studied climate change and sea level rise. "But the [home]owner who's been there for 30 years will suddenly realize it’s not like it used to be.”

How soon significant damage to coastal areas is seen, and how much erosion occurs at Long Island's beaches and barrier islands, is a matter of scientific debate.

Bokuniewicz said Montauk and Fire Island are in no imminent danger of being washed into the sea.

“We’re talking about millennia for that to happen,” he said. “Fire Island as an entity has a long time to go.”

But many researchers think a person born today will see a different Long Island within his or her lifetime.

Over the next couple of decades, Long Island's famous fish-shaped geography — with the North and South forks as the tail — likely will be dramatically reconfigured, Branco said.

Rising tides could turn Southold's Hashamomuck Pond, seen in 2006,...

Rising tides could turn Southold's Hashamomuck Pond, seen in 2006, into a river stretching from Long Island Sound to Shelter Island Sound, severing Greenpoint and Orient from the rest of the town, experts say. Credit: Newsday File / Michael E. Ach

Rising tides could turn Southold's Hashamomuck Pond into a river stretching from Long Island Sound to Shelter Island Sound, severing Greenpoint and Orient from the rest of the town, she said. On the South Fork, Napeague and Shinnecock bays could overwhelm the narrow strips of land that connect communities such as Hampton Bays, Amagansett and Montauk, she said. 

“It's really going to be a series of islands as opposed to the long peninsulas that we have now,” Branco said.

Rising tides will affect not only the South Shore but the North Shore, where higher waves are expected to erode the bases of bluffs and send them sliding into Long Island Sound.

Inland areas also could be affected as water levels rise on rivers and lakes, experts said. 

Experts: Regional plan needed

Climate change has been a factor in some recent decisions by county, town and village officials:

  • The Town of East Hampton in 2020 adopted a long-range voluntary buyout plan to encourage Montauk oceanfront businesses to move inland;
  • Roads such as Nassau Expressway in Hempstead Town were raised following Superstorm Sandy;
  • Since 2012, Suffolk County and Brookhaven have purchased dozens of Mastic Beach properties devastated by Sandy to prevent future development;
  • Southampton Town has spent $1 million in recent years to raise flood-prone Dune Road south of Quogue;
  • Islip Town, which includes South Shore communities such as Bay Shore, Oakdale and Bayport, is training staff in flood plain management to cut the number of homes that could be flooded, officials said;
  • Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in 2019 signed a bill requiring that sea level rise be taken into account when county public works officials plan major roadwork. The law could affect Montauk Highway and county routes 48 in Southold and 77 in Montauk. 

Experts, while lauding these local efforts, said a comprehensive, regional plan is needed to combat floods before entire neighborhoods start sinking.

Some coastal communities such as Lindenhurst and Long Beach may simply become inhospitable to human habitation, said Kevin McAllister, president of Sag Harbor environmental nonprofit Defend H20. 

“These are locations that we just have to move back from,” he said. “Rather than building new roads, let’s dial out some properties and start moving inward.” 

Dorian Dale, director of sustainability for Suffolk County, said beach replenishment and wetlands restoration could help control erosion.

“You have both Democrats and Republicans on Long Island as committed environmentalists," he said. "So I think that’s a real big plus when we start looking at our capacity on Long Island to respond to all these challenges."

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell agreed that local officials must work together to avoid gaps in the Island's climate change plan.

“Towns cannot act independent of each other," Russell said. “We all have to get on the same page, right now. ... As a town, I’ll be candid, we do need to do more.”

'You just can’t mess around with Mother Nature'

For some homeowners, even if their homes survive, staying in them will be more and more expensive.

David W. Clausen, chief executive of Coastal Insurance Solutions in Rocky Point, said Fire lsland homeowners and residents of some South Shore communities will see significantly higher insurance bills if they are deemed to be at risk of severe floods.

“I think the bigger problem is it just won’t be affordable,” he said, adding homeowners could cut their bills by raising their houses. “At the end of the day, you just can’t mess around with Mother Nature.”

Esposito and others said it's not too soon to consider a "strategic retreat" from waterfronts by changing land-use rules to discourage coastline construction of new homes. 

“We have to accept the reality that building on the coast, with beautiful waterfront views, is dangerous," she said. 

Esposito and others said Long Island's famed barrier beaches will continue to serve as a vital buffer against powerful storms.

But their value as summer resorts likely will dwindle, experts said. Fire Island could still be a beautiful ocean beach, said Andrew Ashton, an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, but vacation homes on the island could be lost in a matter of decades.

“We can count the number of generations that are going to be able to use them,” Ashton said. “You can’t really imagine that your grandchildren will own the house [and use it] the same way that you use [it].”

Some Fire Island homeowners have elevated their houses as much...

Some Fire Island homeowners have elevated their houses as much as 9 feet, said Suzy Goldhirsh, president of the Fire Island Association. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Fire Islander: 'We’re just going to have to adapt'

Suzy Goldhirsh, a Manhattan resident whose family has owned Fire Island summer homes since the 1890s, said the effects of climate change are obvious.

Mainland ferry terminal parking lots flood more frequently, and ferries that once required one step to board at high tide now require two or three steps, she said.

Some Fire Island homeowners have elevated their houses as much as 8 or 9 feet, said Goldhirsh, president of the Fire Island Association, which represents home and business owners on the barrier island. 

Still, Goldhirsh fears future generations will go to Fire Island only for short day trips. They won't want to have a house there.

“There is something to be said for the human desire to live near the water," she said. "But that’s looking like something we’ve been doing for hundreds of years that now is not going to be sustainable.”

“Maybe we’re going to use coastal islands like Fire Island a little bit differently," she said. "We’re just going to have to adapt. We're going to have to live on Fire Island more safely.”

With Brianne Ledda and AP

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