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AT RISK: The Story of Virginia's Rising Seas and Sinking Cities

AT RISK: Coastal Virginia’s Rising Seas and Sinking Cities
Credit: Hyunsoo Leo Kim | The Virginian-Pilot

Credit: Hyunsoo Leo Kim | The Virginian-Pilot

April 14, 2015 | By Jugal Patel, Digital Editor

The first time I felt like I really understood how much this university meant, I stood before the control panel of a 5-foot luminous omniglobe in the dimly lit lobby of Old Dominion University’s Physics and Oceanography Building.

The digital panel offers a collection of intriguing visualizations of our planet from space. Beneath the surface, the visualizations are powered by thousands of data points gathered by satellites orbiting the Earth.

Some of the projected models were uploaded by scientists at ODU engaged in research on our global environmental systems. The visualization I was most interested in showed the fluctuating height of our oceans’ surfaces over time. Off the coastline of Southeast Virginia, a poignant cluster of red gathered, illustrating the all too familiar sentiment on the area’s vulnerability to changes to our global climate.

At ODU, it began one year before I arrived as a freshman in 2011. President Broderick established the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative to establish the university as a regional, national, even international hub of intellectual capital to study climate change – more specifically though, sea level rise.

Scientists across the world were warning that our reliance on fossil fuels to power our civilizations was fundamentally altering the environment on a global scale. The science behind what humans were doing to the greenhouse effect has been well established dating back to the 1700’s with Svante Arrhenius first positing that adding carbon dioxide to our atmosphere would have a substantial effect on the global climate.

Since then, our systems of monitoring changes to the planet have advanced to unprecedented levels. Scientists these days have an abundance of data sources to work with. And with years of accumulated knowledge on the Earth’s natural systems, they’ve reached an undeniable consensus that by using fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas to provide our electricity, we’re heating up the planet faster than we can adapt to its changes.

As stated by many of the world’s leading scientists in 1992—a group composed of mostly Nobel Prize Laureates, “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.”

For Norfolk and the surrounding cities of Hampton Roads, the human side of the problem is flooding and its associated issues. Coastal Virginia has dealt with flooding for years, but the projected changes in store threaten to surpass what it can handle

Scientists in the area working with sea level rise data from tide gauges and satellites have long noticed the accelerating trend of our ocean’s rise.

ODU plays an interesting role in trying to deal with the imminent struggles we face as a society. As the intellectual nerve center of one of the most vulnerable regions in the nation, recent years have witnessed a shift in research focus towards working on the area’s problem of sea level rise.

At biweekly seminars hosted by ODU’s Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography, visiting scientists have affirmed that both the world and the region are undergoing significant changes.

“The rate of ice loss is increasing,” said Isabella Velicogna, an international expert on sea level rise and scientist at the joint University of California at Irvine and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I personally don’t see how this will change. The trend will continue.”

According to Velicogna and her research team’s range of measurement systems, the melting of land-based ice in Greenland, Antarctica, and glacial ice caps throughout the world is continuing to accelerate faster than they should be through natural variability

Thermal energy trapped within our coal, oil and gas-fired blanket of greenhouse gases is expanding our oceans and melting the world’s ice. Such an effect now manifests itself off the coasts of Virginia—where the Sewell’s Point tide gauge at Naval Station Norfolk has been measuring an acceleration of sea level rise since the 1930s.

In coastal Virginia, the amount of relative sea level rise surpasses almost everywhere else in the United States.

Subsidence

The rates of land subsidence near Hampton Roads, VA, vary from place to place and are based on how much groundwater towns and businesses draw up. The red contour lines show the rates of subsidence, in millimeters per year, from 1940 to 1971. The fastest sinking sites are centered around the towns of West Point and Franklin. Both communities are home to large paper mills that pull up a lot of water from wells. (U.S. Geological Survey)

The Hampton Roads region is the second most at-risk population center in the nation for sea level rise. The Norfolk and Virginia Beach metropolitan area also ranks 10th in the world for the value of assets exposed to flooding made worse by sea level rise.

This is because, in addition to rising seas caused by expanding oceans and melting ice, land in the Hampton Roads is sinking through processes called subsidence.

Subsidence accounts for half of the area’s relative sea level rise and land sinks in the region for a number of reasons – three primarily. As people extract groundwater, underground space that was once filled with water is emptied. This causes land to sink into the void that’s left.

In areas such as Franklin and West Point measured levels of subsidence are amplified due to paper mills that use greater amounts of water in their industrial processes.

Land around here also sinks through something of a seesaw effect caused by Canadian glaciers that recede off of the continent. As glaciers move away from the land and release pressure, the continental plate in Canada moves upwards while the southern portion of that plate in Hampton Roads’ mid-Atlantic region moves downwards.

The third reason Hampton Roads is sinking is because of a 35 million year old meteor impact crater in the Chesapeake Bay. Over time, we’re slowly falling into that crater—further exacerbating what is our perception of rising seas.

What the science means for Hampton Roads could be devastating. The real dangers are multidimensional—they can present themselves as long term nuisances that eventually form into almost daily hazards. Worse yet, they can present themselves as immediate threats through destructive storms and hurricanes.

Flooding in Norfolk that occurs through regular tidal cycles, which are now at 9 events per year, are expected to increase to 182 events per year by 2045. Flooding through storm surges are another major concern. As storms come into the land off of coasts, they bring massive amounts of water with them—thus causing the sort of flooding we saw during Hurricanes Irene and Isabel. (Flooding during Hurricane Irene shown below).

 

The region’s leaders now accept that for Norfolk and Hampton Roads as a whole, rising seas off of our coastlines could be disastrous.

They could slash property values, destroy homes, flood streets, incapacitate emergency services, shut down schools, drive away businesses, inflict real damage on peoples’ lives… the list goes on.

Because of the region’s vulnerability to the planet’s most pressing issue, people have taken notice. The White House and the Pentagon see the impacts of climate change on Hampton Roads as an issue of national security.

Following a White House sponsored exercise at ODU aimed to simulate a whole of government and whole of community response to catastrophic events, a National Security official echoed the pressing need for adaptation. “The problem is urgent, we need to take action now,” said Judge Alice Hill. “But even if we reduce our carbon emission to zero, we still will have impacts that will come in the future.”

Those impacts cause a great deal of concern due to the amount of critical national security and industry infrastructure in the region.

Southeast Virginia alone hosts facilities owned by 18 federal agencies, including those of the DoD, CIA, FBI, NASA, Air Force and Naval bases, shipping facilities, among others.

The nation’s communicators have shown interest too. From the Washington Post to the New York Times, NPR, the Associated Press and more, journalists have made their way to Hampton Roads to witness and document life at the frontlines of climate change.

Now seeming to understanding the gravity of the issue, major publications are taking the issue seriously than ever before. Papers such as the New York Times offer an expansive archive of environmental coverage related to climate change dating back years. Others such as The Guardian see climate change is undeniably, “the biggest story in the world.”

Their soon retiring editor in chief for the past two decades, Alan Rusbridger, recently decided that he would go out with a bang. He would take a global journalistic superpower and focus it on the issue of climate change to change the world. That process is currently playing out as their coverage can be followed on the Guardian’s website.

At home, the Virginian-Pilot also offers its own local archive of coverage related to sea level rise in the area. Their opinion pages have also long served as a platform for community discussion around the topic of climate change and its projected impacts on Hampton Roads.

As a media outlet that operates in one of the most at risk areas to our society’s largest challenge, we plan to tell this story.

While solving the problem of climate change may prove beyond what we as a society can handle, communicating this crisis is not. In the modern world, not only must we have meaningful conversations about our shared future; we must act on them.


See where ODU students stand:

 

 


About RiSSC

The Mace and Crown’s Rising Seas, Sinking Cities initiative is a collaboration that brings together different academic departments within Old Dominion University, entities in the community, researchers working on the sciences associated with climate change, and journalists working for the university’s student newspaper.

To tell the story of how one of the nation’s most vulnerable areas is adapting to climate change with accuracy, we‘ve spent months collaborating with ODU’s scientists and faculty in the Climate Change Sea Level Rise Initiative, Center for Coastal and Physical Oceanography, Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute, and the Hampton Roads Intergovernmental Pilot Project.

To innovate in the field of journalism, we’ve been working with the Geospatial and Visualization Department, the ODU Social Science Research Center, and the ODU Computer Science Department.

At ODU, the shift in research focus began in 2010 when President John Broderick established the climate change and sea level rise initiative. The effort expanded to have the university become a national core of intellectual capital to study climate change and sea level rise—focusing on how we can adapt to region’s projected issues.

RiSSC is a platform created to inform and incite much needed discussion on this topic within the community.

It’s also a push to innovate in the ever changing field of journalism. While today’s digital world has fundamentally changed the way we communicate—the tools available offer the ability to tell stories in groundbreaking ways.

Because the story of climate change is so expansive, we want you to influence the discussion. Readers and members of the community have the ability to guide our processes by providing opinions in the form of comments and guest submissions. We’d also like for you to have a say in what we publish, who we talk to, and how we cover the issues associated to climate change.

Solving this problem will require our society to work together like never before. Though it may seem that we can only respond to this issue through little steps, small actions multiplied by millions are what change the world.


 

Jugal Patel is the Coastal Adaptation & Resilience Correspondent for the Virginia Sea Grant. This story is part of the Mace & Crown’s Rising Seas, Sinking Cities series. Views expressed in the RiSSC initiative do not necessarily reflect those of any governmental or grant-making organization.

Follow @NorfolkClimate on Twitter for Updates on this story

  • Discanon

    Gee, my reading skills may be fading, but would someone point me to any solid numbers on how much the ocean levels off Virginia have actually risen in the last two centuries. All I saw were computer models, and surveys of students, who, by definition, know nothing more than what they are taught (propagandized?).

    • Jugal Patel

      About 14.5 inches since 1930s. If you want two centuries, you’d probably have to look at proxy data sources as well, though you wouldn’t see much of a jump before the early 20th century. Also a little over a foot in the past century might not sound like much but it’s having an impact already.

      Real concern is with projections. There are wide margins of error the further you go into the future but scientists and planners can reasonably expect between 1.5 to 3 feet in the next 30-50 years. Some expect more.

      We decided to include student perspectives because they matter– especially considering that young people will be most affected by these issues. This is also meant as an introductory post to an ongoing series on sea level rise, so we didn’t want to start off by including too much hard science.

      Thanks for getting involved in the discussion though. We’ll be sure to put out more on the science as we continue.