“Rising seas, rising stakes”
“On the brink”
Judges praised Alex Kuffner for his comprehensive look at the risks facing Rhode Island communities from either a once-in-a-century hurricane or a sea level rise of seven feet by the end of the century, as projected in a worst-case scenario by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Kuffner noted that six percent of residential structures within Rhode Island’s 21 coastal communities are currently vulnerable to some level of flooding in the event of a 100-year storm. That number would double if seven feet of sea level rise is factored in. One study estimates Southern New England is annually losing a greater percentage of tidal marsh vegetation – which acts as a floodwater sponge and protects inland areas from storms – than the fast-eroding Mississippi Delta. Kuffner described efforts to restore marshes and encourage their migration inland to higher ground. He also recounted the perils facing the beautiful and besieged saltmarsh sparrow, whose habitat has been dwindling due to draining and filling of marshlands for development. Sea level rise will only make matters worse, and some conservationists warn the sparrow may become the first bird to go extinct in the continental United States since 1931. Paul Raeburn, a freelance science writer, said Kuffner’s series was “a close look at a local issue, informed by a broader perspective.” Nancy Shute of NPR added that he helped local residents “understand the real risks they face from sea level rise and wetlands loss.” Kuffner noted that Rhode Island, with 400 miles of shoreline, is on the front lines of climate change. “It is a great honor to be recognized with this award for my work reporting on the state’s vulnerabilities to sea level rise and coastal storms,” he said.