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Community Conversations: Climate Resilience and Adaptation in Maine with Antonia Sohns

June 24, 2022
Susanna Pho, CFM

Antonia Sohns is a Climate Change Resiliency Specialist at FB Environmental, an environmental consulting firm based in Portland, Maine. Since joining FB Environmental in 2019, her work has centered around promoting climate change resiliency and adaptation for individuals and communities. Her work has huge impacts for Maine communities preparing for the impacts of climate change, and our team at Forerunner is very inspired by her efforts!

Antonia graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with us about her role and what it means for the future of climate resilience.

Can you explain a bit about your work and what you do as a Climate Change Resiliency Specialist?

I work on climate change and resiliency projects. Recently my work has focused on using natural language processing (NLP) to examine water and climate policies. One of the central projects I’ve been working on over the last couple years has been in partnership with Abbie Sherwin of the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission (SMPDC), and the Town of Vinalhaven, the Town of Kittery, the Town of Wells, the City of South Portland, and the Town of Tremont to develop a model coastal resilience ordinance with a menu of options to increase coastal resiliency and adaptation planning.

The model ordinance aims to provide municipalities with technical language that can be tailored to their individual risks and needs so they can protect their built infrastructure, citizens, and natural environments. We are really excited about the final product and hope that it helps communities increase coastal resilience measures at the local level. For more information on the project and to see the documents, you can check out SMPDC’s website.

What pushed you to explore your interests in climate resilience?

I first became interested in climate resilience from my background in marine biology and oceanography. I was really surprised at the changes occurring in the ocean— such as increasing sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, thermal expansion—as well as overfishing and threatened ocean ecosystems. I started exploring those impacts and realized that to protect the marine environment, and prepare for climate change, people first must be aware of the problem, and engaged in solutions to fix it. That led me into writing, science communication, and environmental policy. Policy remains one of the most powerful tools we can use to protect people from climate impacts through new rules that improve resilience.

Policy remains one of the most powerful tools we can use to protect people from climate impacts through new rules that improve resilience.

What are some challenges that you face in your work?

One challenge in preparing for climate change is knowing which scenario to plan for. In the project to develop a model coastal resilience ordinance, some of our partners asked for information on good mapping tools and data sources to inform planning and policies related to climate change impacts and coastal hazards. For example, the decision to include additional flood hazard areas in a floodplain ordinance and regulatory flood maps should consider technical mapping information, how flood information will be depicted, and how to apply development standards. Maps often need to determine which horizontal boundaries (of different flood zones of a 100 year floodplain), and vertical boundaries (like the base flood elevation or expected floodwater depth) to include.

A challenge for municipalities is often thinking that they need to generate new maps to effectively plan for coastal resilience. However, creating those maps and their underlying models is often expensive and time-consuming. Many state agencies have free mapping tools that municipalities can use to create maps identifying risk areas related to storm surge, flooding, and sea level rise. Those can serve as a great starting point and foundation for coastal resilience policies.

Another common challenge in my work is identifying funding sources. Fortunately, in recent years, more funding has become available from state and federal governments to incorporate coastal resilience planning into existing policies. Checking with municipal governments and state agencies can be helpful in learning about available funding for coastal resilience projects.

Why is your work important to you? What about your work is important for others to understand?

My work is important to me as I hope to contribute to solutions that help people prepare for and become aware of, the challenges that climate change will bring in the future. I am especially concerned about the emotional impacts of climate change, as people may be forced to move from land and communities they have long ties to, or can no longer skate on rivers that no longer freeze. Issues like the mental stress and anxiety tied to climate change are becoming more widely studied, but there is still much unknown about how our society and communities will respond to climate impacts. In working together, and by creating collaborative solutions, we can better prepare for climate impacts and protect ecosystems.

How would you advise officials to approach resilience planning in their own communities if that is not a priority for them currently?

This is a key question that people ask me—as people wonder where they can start in responding to climate change since the issues are so complex and interconnected. I often recommend that officials to begin with a dialogue in their communities, to learn about existing local efforts to respond to climate change and concerns that people have. From there, the community can develop a path towards resilience. Abbie Sherwin of the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission (SPMDC) and I just finished a project to develop a model coastal resilience ordinance for the state of Maine. Some of the steps we highlighted on the path to resilience progress from meeting State minimum standards, to integrating resilience measures into existing regulations, and sharing information and knowledge with other communities.

Antonia’s work in climate resiliency informs local and state planning to ensure long-term success in adaptation. Visit the FB Environmental website to read more about their climate resiliency projects in the towns of Lovell, Wells, and Bar Harbor, Maine.

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