The Water Is Coming

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It’s a familiar refrain. In 2013, Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim told a group of Virginia mayors that sea level rise is “a threat we can no longer afford to ignore. The water is coming.”

The Safe Coast Virginia report from CCAN says “the East Coast of the United States is threatened by an Atlantic Ocean that is rising three to four times faster than the national average. By the year 2100, sea level rise in Virginia is projected to be as much as seven feet or more, substantially higher than global projections.”

Rising tides are already affecting the region and its residents, the reader-friendly report shows, in areas relating to quality of life, business, the environment, tourism and, yes, rising insurance rates. It also lays out “ten important policy solutions that are within the reach of Virginia’s citizens and policymakers” to help mitigate what’s coming.

CCAN’s study is only the latest call-to-action. In the past few years, in report after report, a floating parade of scientists, military officials, environmental advocates, academic institutions and municipal leaders have issued dire warnings about the threat of future flooding—with predictions that ocean levels may rise two feet in the region in just the next few decades. All of them warn that life along the Virginia coast is going to be very different, very soon, and that “nuisance flooding” is only the beginning.

Hampton Roads Tidal Map“There are some localities that have undeniable, near-term problems,” says Dr. Carl Hershner. “Norfolk is certainly one; Portsmouth; Poquoson is sort of the classic example of a community that’s highly at risk. But there are parts of Gloucester, Hampton, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, all of which have recurring problems now that are only going to get worse in the near term.”

Hershner, the director of the Center for Coastal Resources at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), is a marine scientist, not an advocate. But he doesn’t mince words: “We are entering into an area of changes in our system that we have no model for. We’ve never seen these kinds of changes before.”

When the General Assembly commissioned a study on coastal flooding in 2012, it turned to VIMS, as Virginia’s state government has done for maritime advice for 75 years. But not before bickering and arguing about the terms “climate change” and “sea level rise.” Virginia Beach Del. Chris Stolle (R) had the words stricken from the bill funding the study, saying that they were “left wing terms.” The jury is still out on climate change, he added.

Actually, it isn’t, Hershner says. “The question has long been answered by science.”

“Humans are driving the system these days. We are having a demonstrative impact. We are responsible through our greenhouse gas emissions, and particularly our Co2 emissions, for a lot of the temperature changes and resulting sea level rise that we currently see. The people who deny it are not informed individuals. The question is what do we do about it?”

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