National Geographic, Sea Level Rise, and Virginia’s Coasts: Part I: The Threat is Real

“As the planet warms, the sea rises.  Coastlines flood.  What will we protect?  What will we abandon?  How will we face the danger of rising seas?”

na - national geo

National Geographic – If the Ice Melts Interactive

In a recent and popular article, National Geographic’s Tim Folger addressed the dangerous effects of rising seas across the world.   The article focused on more extreme weather events resulting from climate change and was paired with an interactive map showing the dangers of sea level rise across the world.  While the article doesn’t focus on Virginia, it’s clear from the maps and general issues discussed that Virginia will not be exempt from the dangers of sea level rise.

In the fall of 2012, the Northeast was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.  Through the course of its destruction, Hurricane Sandy managed to cause $19 billion in damages and the loss of forty-three lives.1  While the article focused primarily on the effects of Sandy on NY (for good reason), we should not be quick to forget that this storm also wreaked havoc on Virginia.  In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, 5,100 Virginia homes were left without power 2 and much of eastern Virginia was flooded, ultimately causing 100 closed roads.3

Now, drawing attention back to Virginia is not meant to underscore Hurricane Sandy’s tremendous effect on New York and New Jersey, but it is meant to highlight that Virginia is at risk to precisely those extreme weather events discussed in the article.  All the extreme weather events and risks from sea level rise discussed in the article are things Virginia will too experience.  As Virginians, we are faced with the same things as every other coastal region.  We are faced with “a profoundly altered planet is what our fossil-fuel driven civilization is creating, a planet where Sandy-scale flooding will become more common and more destructive to the world’s coastal cities” 4 and we need to address this problem.  Sea level rise is not New York’s or New Orleans’ problem, nor is it the Netherlands’.  Sea level rise is going to affect every coastal area through heightened weather events and flooding and it is soon to be every coastal resident’s concern.


Virginia’s Coastal Boundaries

While there remains uncertainty about how much or when, the article was quick to point out that sea level changes are coming regardless.  Six years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report predicting that at the maximum sea level would rise twenty-three inches by 2100.5  But as the article notes, the IPCC intentionally omitted potential glacial melting because of uncertainties in the physics of predicting it.  The article pointed to other sources that predicted a maximum rise between five feet and six 6 and half feet.7  While the exact numbers remain uncertain, the threat is real.  So, what does all of this mean for Virginia?

As the interactive map indicates, Virginia’s coasts are particularly susceptible to sea level changes.  The average predicted elevation in Virginia Beach is ten feet.8  The average elevation of Norfolk is only seven.9  A significant portion of the state will be at risk of being underwater by 2100 if the predictions in the article are correct.  To make matters worse, Virginia’s coastal population has been steadily increasing since 1960.  To date, Virginia has a coastal population of 5.1 million residents, up from 3.6 million in 1986. 10 Further, Virginia had the third highest increase in percentage of coastal population from 1960-2008 in the nation.11  Over the same time period, coastal population in proportion to total population has increased by 5.9%, making Virginia’s coastal population 39.3% of the total population.12  Of the top ten northeastern coastal counties that have seen the most rapid population increases, Virginia boasts third.13  Three counties (Prince William, Stafford, and James City) have seen an increase in coastal population by over 440%.14

All of this means that when the sea level changes predicted by the National Geographic article occur, Virginia is poised to suffer a huge loss.  It isn’t necessarily troubling that our coastal cities have developed rapidly over the years, but it is troubling when you consider how populated these regions are.  Norfolk County (the same one that boasts an average elevation of seven feet) is the thirteenth most densely populated coastal county in the country with a population density of 4,327. 15 All in all, Virginia has sixty-one counties that are defined as “coastal” and at risk for the sea level rises predicted by the article.

The state’s high coastal population, rapid coastal development, and expansive, low-lying coast put it at great risk for changes to sea level within the next century.  The exact rise in sea level expected by 2100, as the article points out, remains unknown, but no matter how much it rises, Virginia’s coasts will be affected.

Blog Article By: Kelsey Baack

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