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River House Renewal Must Consider Rising Sea Level

By Eleanor P. Wiesler, Crimson Opinion Writer
Eleanor P. Wiesler ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Eliot House.

As scaffolding comes down at parts of Adams House and students enjoy newly renovated Lowell and Winthrop Houses, River West residents await news on when reconstruction will reach their gates. Eliot and Kirkland Houses, after almost a century of housing College students following their first opening in 1931, are two of the last Houses in need of renewal. As an Eliotite, I worry about when my House will begin tearing down its walls and closing its historic dorms to students. But more than anything, I worry that Harvard will fail to prepare Eliot for the wrath of climate change to come.

Living on the Charles River is a cherished part of River West residency — we’re surrounded by history and close to views of rowers, kayakers, or perhaps even the occasional misguided swimmer. Yet we’re living in the calm before the storm. If climate change continues on its current course, Boston sea levels, compared to 2000 levels, are expected to rise by as much as a foot and a half by 2050, and as much as three feet by 2070. Eliot and Kirkland are situated right in the flood zones of the Charles — meaning that sometime in the next few decades, both River Houses are projected to be flooded, and perhaps even underwater.

For years, Eliot and Kirkland have been surveyed for reconstruction plans in preparation for rebuilding and renovation efforts. Before any construction plans are finalized, I urge the administration, building managers, and architects to prioritize floodwater response and rising river levels in their assessments. If Harvard fails to recognize this threat, it will pay the price later, both in the University budget and the well-being of future students. Naively believing that climate change will remain a far-away issue and that the river will be forever harmless will have long-term consequences. Harvard must be a model for strong climate preparedness across all academic institutions.

Sea levels are rising at an increasing rate as they approach our River West shores. As temperatures increase, ocean water warms and increases in volume in a process called thermal expansion. In Greenland, warmer summers cause the ice sheet to experience increased surface melting and ice mass loss, one of the greatest contributors to global sea level rise today. In Antarctica, West Antarctic glaciers are expected to flow into the ocean as ice shelves collapse from warming ocean water underneath, with the potential to significantly raise global sea levels on unpredictable timescales. Locally, sea level rise is also exacerbated by land sinking along coastlines, including the East Coast of the United States. This multitude of contributors to the sea level and the accelerated rate at which each is adding to the rise means responding swiftly is vital.

Concerningly, downplaying the severity of future climate threats is the norm for not only academic institutions, but organizations and governments everywhere. The United States is responsible for an alarming 24.6 percent of cumulative global emissions that have warmed the planet thus far. Yet it often feels as though our leaders still largely opt to maintain a blissfully ignorant view of the future when it comes to climate change response. Addressing climate change involves both reducing future emissions and preparing robust adaptation measures quickly — ignoring either has devastating consequences. At Harvard, adapting on campus means we cannot wait for water to pour into our dormitories before confronting rising sea levels. Now is the time to prepare, and Harvard should be leading the way.

Adapting to rising sea levels requires a multifaceted approach. One of the largest hurdles for our coastal community is being able to rapidly prepare our infrastructure, buildings, and residential communities. Researchers expect that extreme winter storms, bringing high tides and storm surges to Boston Harbor, will continue to be the greatest flooding risk to the city in the years to come. Experts have proposed the construction of a harbor barrier, but the implementation of this would require over $11.8 billion. In a September hearing for sea-level rise planning, Boston officials reached no coordinated consensus on how to begin addressing the issue, agreeing only that significant funds would be required.

While Harvard should encourage city leaders to implement barrier solutions in Boston Harbor, for now, Harvard must plan to protect riverside dorms like Eliot and Kirkland by prioritizing specific flood-safe design measures. This could include raising buildings higher above projected river levels, integrating flood greenspace like that used in the Science and Engineering Complex, ensuring electrical rooms and generators are located far above ground, making sure evacuation exits are in place if needed, and bringing in flood design experts.

Preparing for adaptation efforts, both on Harvard’s campus and in collaboration with local city governments, is essential as the Charles rises. Redesigning Eliot and Kirkland with sea level in mind during future renewal projects is a first step. The Harvard bubble will not be impermeable to floods forever, no matter how protected we may feel living within its gates.

Eleanor P. Wiesler ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Eliot House.

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