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At War with a Changing Climate

Tom Pelton

At the far southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, Jonathan White, a former rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, directed a tour of the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk.

While some dismiss climate change as a hoax, Admiral White described the very real threat that sea-level rise caused by global warming poses even to the military.

“If we just did nothing with this base, it’s easy to see that in a worst-case scenario of a couple of meters of sea level rise by the end of the century, much of this base would not be usable,” said White, an oceanographer and former director of the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change. “You wouldn’t even be able to get to the ships to even pull the ships in to the piers here. So you are going to have to do something to respond to that level of sea level rise.”

The base’s home, Hampton Roads, Virginia, is experiencing the highest rate of relative sea-level rise  along the  East Coast as warmer weather expands the volume of the oceans and melts polar ice.

Abandoning this massive, century-old military base – with its 14 piers, 11 aircraft hangers and constellation of surrounding installations -- to the rising seas would have a catastrophic impact on the local economy.  Worse yet, as many as 176,000 residents have homes in low-lying areas that are threatened by even a three foot rise in sea level over the next century.

Other waterfront areas across the Chesapeake – including Fells Point in Baltimore and downtown Annapolis -- are also at risk of inundation during large storms, which are expected to become more frequent. But nowhere is the danger of flooding more dire than in southeastern Virginia, where an eight inch rise in global ocean levels over the last century has been compounded here by a one foot drop in the ground level.  

This settling of the land is being caused by excessive pumping of groundwater from drinking water aquifers, as well as by the natural shifting of geological formations.

“It’s a like when you’re standing on a beach, and the water comes in -- and your feet sink into the sand,” White said. “That’s what makes the Hampton Roads area, as well as some areas on the Gulf Coast, like New Orleans, Galveston, and places like that, extremely vulnerable to sea level rise, because they are sinking at the same time that the water is rising.”

As we drove around Hampton Roads on an educational tour arranged by the nonprofit World Resources Institute, our van blasted through a half-foot of standing water that swamped the roadways at several locations. It had only rained a bit the night before.  But whole streets, parking lots and neighborhoods of Norfolk were flooded – again, as they are several times a season.

Climbing out of the van, I met Henry Braithwaite, a construction contractor, who once again couldn’t even back his car out of his driveway to get to work.

“If we get a good storm and a high tide, it’s always in the streets—pretty much every all the time, guaranteed,” Braithwaite said. “I don’t know what happened this time, because it didn’t even rain that much last night.  But it’s a regular nuisance to have water in our streets like this.”  

Nearby, a team of workers was trying raise a house atop a 10-foot stack of cinder blocks, in an attempt to keep it out of the way of future floods.  The crew was facing a muddy slog, however, because a foot of brackish water was covering the street and worksite.

Christina DeConcini, Director of Government Affairs at the World Resources Institute, said: “Most people in the United States have never seen this kind of flooding on their streets or in their front yards. But this is an example of the rising seas and how much the water levels are impacted if there is any kind of rain, or just high tides.”

At a waterfront neighborhood along the Elizabeth River, the city of Norfolk is planning to build an earthen berm and artificial wetlands to try slow the water’s rise using $120 million in federal funds.

But of course, in the long run, a pile of dirt won’t do a heap of good to stop an ocean. The real answer is burying the fossil fuels that ignited the problem in the first place. 

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.