Addressing Tomorrow’s Emergency with Today’s Plans

Eroded coastline near the Shinnecock Nation’s territory on Long Island, NY

Eroded coastline near the Shinnecock Nation’s territory on Long Island, NY

By Irene Boland Nielson

Fourth in a five-part series on climate change issues.

Native Americans have long understood the need to be caretakers of the earth and were among the first to recognize the signs of climate change. It is no surprise that some tribes are leading the way to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

One such tribe is the Shinnecock Indian Nation on the South Fork of Long Island. They experienced firsthand the potentially devastating impacts of climate change when Superstorm Sandy slammed into the area in October 2012. Shoreline scouring and flooding of roads, burial grounds and basements during Sandy showed that climate change poses immediate threats to the Shinnecock. The Nation is now taking broad steps to adapt to climate change and setting a good example for other island communities.

First, the Shinnecock looked to neighbors and peers, and held a community workshop to discuss climate threats. The tribe worked with funding from the EPA, in partnership with the St. Regis Mohawk, a Tribal Nation straddling the St. Lawrence River between the U.S. – Canada border. Next, they used climate vulnerability assessments from the Peconic Estuary and convened all Shinnecock department heads to identify climate threats to their Nation. This is important, since tomorrow’s emergency needs are linked with long-term community plans for the future.

Global rise of sea levels is the most confidently projected climate threat, since water expands when warmer like a heated teapot. (See yesterday’s blog on sea level rise.) With rising seas, by 2050, a storm with one percent chance of happening any year could inundate almost half of the Nation, including some evacuation routes. The Shinnecock’s climate adaptation plan calls for restoring their shoreline as a frontline of defense against flooding with native plants, as well as upgrading overwhelmed culverts to protect sacred burial grounds. Precious coastal water aquifers are also vulnerable to encroaching saltwater. The Shinnecock will reduce water contamination by replacing tribal cesspools with a closed community sewer and wastewater treatment facility. The plan also calls for improving the Nation’s food security by reestablishing community farming and protecting vital shellfish beds and reducing fossil fuels, open burning, idling, and tree loss.

Cleaner air, shorelines protected by natives plants, energy and food security are all hallmarks of resiliency in the Shinnecock Indian Nation Climate Change Adaptation Plan. Island communities should follow the example set by the Shinnecock Indian Nation and make plans to protect themselves and their neighbors from climate change impacts.

About the Author: Irene Boland Nielson is the Climate Change Coordinator for the New York City based office of the U.S. EPA. She joined the EPA as a Presidential Management Fellow and has worked on a range of issues, including the Agency’s Strategic Plan, a memorandum of agreement with Department of Defense for a sustainable Guam, and the EPA Climate Adaptation Plan. Currently, she co-chairs the EPA Region 2 Climate Change Workgroup, administers Climate Showcase Community grants and works to promote sustainability in communities.

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