Military and Civilians Alike are Battling Sea Level Rise in Tidewater Virginia

June 10, 2013 | 10:10 am
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

You need only drive down Messick Road in the Virginia tidewater town of Poquoson to get a sense of how vulnerable this whole region is to flooding and rising sea levels.

My UCS colleague Carina Barnett-Loro and I were there recently with Skip Stiles, executive director of Norfolk-based Wetlands Watch. As we stood at the water’s edge watching training flights land at Langley Air Force Base off in the distance across the Back River, he explained the risks and tough choices coastal communities are facing.

As goes Poquoson, so goes Hampton Roads

Driving through Poquoson on our way to the shore, Skip had pointed out the many houses that had been raised (many with grants from FEMA) high onto new foundations to avoid the frequent and worsening flooding here.  The whole of Poquoson is less than 10ft above sea level but most residents prefer to stay put, rather than countenance the prospect of abandonment or relocation, and the FEMA grants allow them to do just that.

Skip Stiles from Wetlands Watch describes the flooding threat to Poquoson

Skip Stiles from Wetlands Watch describes the flooding threat to Poquoson, VA. Photo: Adam Markham

Poquoson may be one of the most directly vulnerable communities in the region, but it is a small town of not much more than 12,000 people. More than 1.6 million people live in the whole Hampton Roads metro-region, many in the larger cities of Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Newport News, and the flooding threats in these places are equally startling. Furthermore, the whole area is crucially important for the US national security, studded as it is with dozens of military facilities, and with more than 120,000 active-service personnel residents. It is also home to an enormous shipbuilding industry and a massive civilian port complex. Hampton Roads exports more coal than anywhere else in the U.S., and grain, petroleum, timber, and cars are constantly moving through the port.

Ground Zero for Climate Threats to U.S.Navy

Naval Station Norfolk is the biggest naval base in the world and the Navy takes climate change seriously. It has to. Coastal storms and sea level rise can severely compromise operational readiness. During Hurricane Irene, the Navy mobilized 27 ships to sail out of Hampton Roads and ride out the storm at sea. A recent Department of Defense study found that critical infrastructure for berthed ships, such as oily waste, wastewater pipes, and electrical and water supply were at high risk from sea level rise. Many of the current piers at Naval Station Norfolk are decades old and the Navy is currently spending up to $40 million each to replace and refurbish all 14 of them, making them resilient to climate impacts in the process. Water and the ideal conditions for generations of mariners is what has given this region at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay its economic vitality for hundreds of years, but as the seas rise, water is rapidly becoming the enemy.

Navy ships berthed in Portsmouth, seen from Norfolk, VA. Photo: Adam Markham

Navy ships berthed in Portsmouth, seen from Norfolk, VA. Photo: Adam Markham

Accelerating Sea Level Rise

Sea-level rise has been measured at Sewell’s Point in the Naval Station at 14.5 inches during the last 80 years, and while land subsidence is responsible for a significant part of the rise along Virginia’s coast, sea level resulting from climate change is projected to accelerate in the coming decades. The Virginia Institute for Marine Science (VIMS) recently completed a Recurrent Flood study at the request of the Virginia General Assembly. They projected a sea level rise range of between 1.3 and 5.2 ft. by 2100, with best estimate for planning purposes of 1.5 ft. during the next 20-50 years. They also noted that between 1948 and 2011 there has been a 33 percent increase in the frequency of extreme rainfall events for coastal Virginia, and an 11 percent increase in the amount of rain falling in these events.

The VIMS study identified more than 500 miles of flood-vulnerable roads in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Chesapeake alone. Road congestion is already diabolical in the region and VIMS estimates that it would take at least 36 hours to evacuate all the at-risk residential areas in South Hampton Roads – necessitating at least a 48 hour warning before a storm hits because the bridges, tunnels, and ferries all stop operating when wind speeds reach 39-45 mph.

Frequent, Damaging Floods Now Commonplace

As Carina and I continued our visit with Skip Stiles, he took us around some of the residential areas of Norfolk where the signs of frequent flooding and the vulnerability to storm surge are obvious. On a calm day in the Ghent neighborhood, outside the Chrysler Museum with its billion dollar collection of art, water lapped a few inches from the edge of the walls separating the building from the Hague Inlet. During Hurricane Isobel in 2003, water poured into the museum’s basement threatening the collection. A few blocks over in the Larchmont neighborhood, work was being completed on another FEMA-funded house-raising, and we could see the telltale signs of recent tidal flooding, saltwater intrusion and the encroachment of saltmarsh plants such as spartina and saltbush amongst the curb-side vegetation. Many houses in these pretty but at risk residential streets are increasingly difficult to sell and the proportion of renters versus owners is growing.

A house in a flood prone neighborhood of Norfolk, VA., in the final stages of being raised to reduce risk of future damage. Photo: Adam Markham

A house in a flood prone neighborhood of Norfolk, VA., in the final stages of being raised to reduce risk of future damage. Photo: Adam Markham

The city of Norfolk is spending millions to raise roads, build flood defenses and improve storm-water management, but the inconvenience and costly damage associated with flooding is already commonplace for residents, as it is in the neighboring towns of Virginia Beach, Newport News, Hampton, and Chesapeake. Ordinary Nor’easters that today might cause only moderate storm surges will have much more damaging impacts by mid-century as they come on top of sea level changes of a foot or more. It’s plain to see that the Hampton Roads region, with its concentration of vital military infrastructure and growing civilian population is now on the front-line of dealing with climate impacts.