A Slow-Motion Disaster: One Community’s Fight To Save Itself From Climate Change


Water levels rise during a recent flooding event in Norfolk.

Water levels rise during a recent flooding event in Norfolk.

“We are here to ask for your help,” said Paul Fraim, Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia. “It is a threat we can no longer ignore.”

Fraim was speaking to a group of elected officials and emergency planners earlier this month. The focus of their discussion: the state’s lack of action on climate change, particularly as it pertains to sea level rise.

Sea level rise is a slow-moving threat that presents a tremendous risk to some of the world’s most heavily-populated regions. For Fraim and his fellow residents of the Tidewater area, sea level rise isn’t a problem for the distant future — it’s impacting their everyday lives right now.

Because the ground beneath Norfolk is subsiding while the water around it rises, the city serves as a snapshot of what other coastal communities will face in the coming decades if nothing is done to address climate change. Today the Center for American Progress released a new video examining the risks and cost associated with sea level rise, with a particular focus on residents, scientists and community leaders in Norfolk. Watch it:

Sea level rise is the result of multiple factors. As human activity pumps record amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, adding to the total volume of the oceans. In addition, as water warms it also expands.

The ocean doesn’t fill up evenly like a bathtub, however, meaning some coastal regions will bear the brunt of sea level rise. The U.S. Geological Survey reported in the journal Nature Climate Change that sea level rise along the U.S. Atlantic Coast has been climbing at a rate three to four times higher than the global average since 1950.

Another result of climate change, the slowdown of the Gulf Stream, may help explain why the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast is such a hot spot for sea level rise. As Climate Central explains, the Gulf Stream works like a conveyor belt. Ordinarily, the Gulf Stream brings warm water north from the tropics. When Gulf Stream waters reach the cold North Atlantic Ocean, they cool. Cold water is denser than warm water, so it sinks. That cold bottom water then moves south to replace the water that rose in the tropics.

Climate change interferes with the conveyor belt because the water is a lot less dense — thanks to the fact that it is diluted by fresh water from the melting glaciers and is warmer — which means it has a harder time sinking and traveling south. And as the system slows down, “the water along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. begins to rise at an accelerating rate.”

While estimates vary, a 2012 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated sea levels could rise by up to six feet by the end of the century, putting more than eight million Americans at risk.

But even just a few inches can make a major difference. The extent of the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy was made possible by the unprecedented storm surge and as sea levels rise, destructive storm surges and flooding will become far more common. According to a recent study from NOAA,

… climate-change related increases in sea level have nearly doubled today’s annual probability of a Sandy-level flood recurrence as compared to 1950. Ongoing natural and human-induced forcing of sea level ensures that Sandy-level inundation events will occur more frequently in the future from storms with less intensity and lower storm surge than Sandy.

If the several inches of sea-level rise that have been measured to date have nearly doubled the chances of a Sandy-like storm surge, then the several feet that may await many coastal cities could be catastrophic. No longer a distant threat, many of these impacts are already bearing out in coastal Virginia.

“The fact of the matter is, we’ve got rising waters,” said Virginia State Senator Jim Watkins (R-Midlothian).”We’ve got recurrent flooding. There are more 100-year storms in the last 15 years than we’ve ever seen. Somebody has got to deal with it.”

While the cost of helping coastal cities prepare for the impacts of sea-level rise is daunting — an initial set of projects identified by the city of Norfolk in partnership with the Dutch consulting firm Fugro Atlantic totaled $1 billion, more than the city’s annual operating budget — the cost of inaction is far higher.

As National Journal explains, “Hampton Roads is a major engine of the state’s economy, home to 1.6 million people, the world’s largest naval base, including the only U.S. shipyard that builds nuclear submarines, and the tourist mecca of Virginia Beach.” As sea level rise threatens the region’s infrastructure and assets, “the economic impact of these forces will be profound; some estimates run as high as $25 billion.”

A study published recently in the journal Nature Climate Change found that if no action is taken to address climate change and prepare for increased flood risk, the average annual losses from flooding in the world’s biggest coastal cities could rise from about $6 billion per year today to $1 trillion per year by 2050. As the Washington Post notes, this may even be a conservative estimate, considering “this study is factoring in relatively mild sea-level rise scenarios of just 7.9 inches by mid-century. If seas rise more, the costs go up.”

While the devastating impacts of sea level rise can’t be avoided, they can be lessened by taking action. For example, a study prepared for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that every $1 spent on resilience measures to help communities prepare for the impacts of extreme weather events saved $4 in disaster recovery.

82 percent of Virginia’s coastline is considered at high or very high risk to sea level rise, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But action to address climate change and prepare coastal communities for the impacts of sea-level rise is often impeded by politics. In 2011, the state legislature approved a study examining the impacts climate change was having on the state, but only after Republican delegates forced the removal of the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise.’

Delegate Chris Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), who once said the “jury’s still out” on whether human activity contributes to global warming, was a co-sponsor of the legislation. According to the Virginian-Pilot, Stolle “said ‘sea level rise’ is a ‘left-wing term’ that conjures up animosities on the right. So why bring it into the equation?”

Regardless, even the modified study was clear about the threat sea level rise presents to Virginia, stating, “sea level rise in Virginia is a documented fact.” It goes on to say, “water levels in Hampton Roads have risen more than one foot over the past 80 years. The causes of this rise are well understood and current analyses suggest the rate of rise is increasing.”

And this year’s high stakes governor’s race includes Republican Ken Cucinelli. Not only does Cucinelli question the science behind climate change, as Attorney General, he used taxpayer dollars to wage a widely criticized witch hunt against University of Virginia climatologist Michael Mann. Mann has since become active in Virginia politics, telling MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “Virginians have a very stark choice before them … [Cuccinelli is] somebody who views science as something to attack if it doesn’t comport with his ideological views or the views of the special interests that fund his campaigns.”