Our Region at Risk

Front-Line City in Virginia Tackles Rise in Sea  --  The New York Times, Nov. 25

Last house on sinking Chesapeake Bay island collapses   --  The Washington Post,  Oct. 26

Flood Plan proposed to protect Washington Mall  --  The Washington Post, Nov. 15

Maybe climate change has fallen off the radar screen at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but these recent headlines from The Washington Post and The New York Times suggest that the issue hasn’t gone away. No, these stories aren’t straight out of some scary futuristic sci-fi movie (anybody remember the truly dreadful 1995 movie Waterworld starring Kevin Costner?). Nor are they based on some forecast for a distant future year spit out by a supercomputer. They simply report on real events, happening today, right here in our region. They provide a clear and present warning of the economic costs and human suffering that will increasingly be in the news if we fall to address climate change.

In the Larchmont neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia, residents are struggling to cope with tidal flooding that has grown increasingly worse over the decades. Faced with a rise in sea level of 14.5 inches from 1930 from a combination of sea level rise and the natural sinking of land, there are few good choices. The town is fighting back by spending $1.25 million to raise the street by 18 inches and is considering zoning changes to create new parks in flood-prone areas. But one resident worries that efforts to push back against the rising waters will become a “money pit,” and the story quotes another resident who says, “We are the front lines of climate change. No one who has a house here is a skeptic.”

In 1888, Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay was a small community consisting of 60 houses. Last month the last remaining structure gave way – the result of rising waters and sinking land. Despite the best efforts by its owner over the past 15 years, in the end the rising waters were not to be denied. Efforts to restore another island (Poplar Island) in the Chesapeake are estimated to have cost $667 million.

Concerns that massive tidal flooding could inundate large portions of the Washington Mall and downtown D.C. have led to a $9 million flood control project that began construction last month. Plans call for constructing a “post and panel” flood control system consisting of sinking 30 caissons into the ground under 17th street that would provide the foundation for 8 feet high aluminum panels that would be installed in advance of an oncoming flood.   

Connecting the dots between these three disparate examples isn’t that difficult. While sea level changes are influenced to some extent by local conditions (e.g., subsidence), recent studies suggest future increases in sea level related to climate change could be 3 feet or more by the end of the century unless actions are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The map below highlights in red the land area in the Chesapeake Bay region that would be impacted by a three feet rise in sea level. 


These communities are being proactive – that’s the good news. The reality though is that without a concerted effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, these actions will amount to little more than a finger in the dike. 

Steve Seidel is Vice President for Policy Analysis