Happy Memorial Day weekend folks! Summarizing my posting efforts of late as “slacking” would be a compliment, but this week’s vacation to Sandbridge, VA has got my climate change blood a flowin’!
A born and raised Virginian who’s family ties to the state date back far enough that my first name comes from an ancestor who was a nurse (fun childhood growing up as a boy with a girls name…) at Bull Run during the Civil War, you could say I think the most populated state WITHOUT a major sports franchise (how is this possible?!) is kind of a big deal. So while I keep track of all things Virginia personally and all things climate and weather professionally, I somehow overlooked how sea-level rise has been impacting the state until my trip to Sandbridge, VA this week. My oversight of these local scale impacts of climate change highlight a common misperception throughout the United States that impacts of climate change are a next generation or third-world country problem. The reality is that the costs and impacts of climate change are already draining our wallets and are in our backyards, have been for some time, and will become more amplified the longer we wait to comprehensively address the issue both domestically and abroad.
As for my “awakening” to the issue in VA, turns out that sea-level rise is occurring faster in the Hampton Roads area than anywhere along the East Coast, rising 14.5 inches in the last 80 years — 80% more than the 8 inches of average global sea level rise over the last 140 years. The rising sea combined with sinking land (in part due to a ginormous crater caused by a meteor, which actually created the Chesapeake Bay) along the Virginia coast has been threatening the existence of coastal communities like Sandbridge, VA for decades, resulting in local home owners now paying a special tax that funds beach renourishment projects critical to their survival. What is beach renourishment you ask? Well, the short version is a multi-million dollar operation that takes place all 24 hours of the day in front of the beach house you rented for a week without being given any notice by the real estate company eight months ago when you made the reservations (any lawyers reading this?).
The project I’ve been given a front row seat to this week has a price tag of $15 million. So while enjoying my beachfront view of porta johns and pipes these last few days I was inspired to dig deeper into sea-level rise and how it’s impacting the state. A bit choppy due to intermittent breaks for beer pong, Canasta, and making a family Harlem Shake video, but here we go:
Hampton Roads possesses the second largest concentration of military capacity and activities in the United States, and is home to the world’s largest naval base – Naval Station Norfolk. According to the former Commanding Officer of Naval Station Norfolk, Joe Bouchard, almost all major military facilities in Hampton Roads are threatened by sea-level rise, and as sea level continues to rise so will the likelihood that some of those facilities will need to be relocated. Since 46% of the local economy comes from Department of Defense spending, this makes Hampton Roads uniquely vulnerable to sea-level rise. In addition, the Hampton Roads area is second only to New Orleans, LA, as the largest population center at risk from sea-level rise in the country.
Virginia’s state and local governments have recently taken the initiative to assess the threat of sea-level rise and increased coastal flooding, but it’s clear that much more is needed. If Virginia’s coastal communities are to withstand rising seas in the coming decades, initiatives that proactively address the threat of sea-level rise will be necessary. This is especially important around Hampton Roads, given that around half of historical sea-level rise in the area has been from the sinking of land (i.e., subsidence), which is anticipated to remain constant in the region while sea-level rise caused by climate change is expected to accelerate in the future.
VIRGINIA’S VULNERABILITY AND COST ESTIMATES
- Hampton Roads is second only to New Orleans as the area in the country most impacted by sea-level rise.
- The Norfolk-Virginia Beach Metropolitan Area ranks 10th in the world in value of assets exposed to an increase in flooding from sea-level rise.
- The 1933 hurricane – widely known as the “Storm of the Century” – was significantly more powerful than Hurricane Isabel in 2003. While the 1933 hurricane produced a storm surge in Hampton Roads 21 percent higher than Isabel, the maximum water level for both storms was roughly the same. This was a result of the average monthly sea level being 1.4 feet higher during Hurricane Isabel than during the 1933 hurricane, which was mostly due to the increase in sea-level rise that occurred in the 70 years between the two storms.
- Although Hurricane Isabel made landfall in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Virginia still experienced $925 million in damages to insured properties.
- According to the former Commanding Officer of Naval Station Norfolk, Joe Bouchard, the base would need to spend up to $460 million to replace old piers already degraded by sea-level rise and hundreds of millions more to protect onshore infrastructure critical to the base’s maintenance, training, and logistics missions.
- Ron Williams Jr., Assistant City Manager of Norfolk, said the city needs a total investment of $1 billion in the coming decades, including $600 million to replace current infrastructure, to keep the water in its place and help make homes and businesses more resilient.
- Paul Fraim, Mayor of Norfolk:“We deal with stormwater flooding in the city now on a monthly basis.”19 “A severe Category 2 or Category 3 storm, if we were to receive a direct hit, almost all of the city would be underwater.”
- According to the recent Old Dominion University study “Climate Change, Global Warming and Ocean Levels,” when assuming a mid-range estimate of a 3.7-foot increase in local sea level by 2100: “From north to south, vast areas of Mathews, Gloucester and York counties, most of Poquoson, and much of the cities of Hampton, Norfolk, Chesapeake and the Virginia Beach oceanfront will be underwater unless protected by dikes and levees.”
- According to a recent study by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC), costs from three feet of sea-level rise in the Hampton Roads region are expected to range between $12 billion and $87 billion.
LOCAL CONCERNS AND GOVERNMENT RESPONSES TO SEA-LEVEL RISE
During a project led by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation, Virginia Beach residents surveyed about sea-level rise stated that the issue:
- Is a long-term problem – 98%
- Should be a priority for local governments – 92%
- Requires immediate action to be taken to deal with the effects – 86%
- Is a very important issue in the Virginia Beach area – 86%
An HRPDC study focused on analyzing the potential future impacts of sea-level rise on the region’s population, built environment, infrastructure, economy, and natural environment.
Residents currently living in or near areas that could be inundated, permanently or regularly, by 3 feet of sea-level rise:
- Low estimate: 59,059 residents (or the equivalent of more than four times the estimated population of Williamsburg, VA)
- High estimate: 176,124 residents (or the equivalent of 84 percent of the estimated population of Richmond, VA)
Roads currently in or near areas that could be inundated, permanently or regularly, by 3 feet of sea-level rise:
- Low estimate: 162 miles (or more miles than driving from Charlottesville, VA to Newport News, VA)
- High estimate: 877 miles (or more than four times the miles travelled when driving from Washington, DC to Virginia Beach, VA)