National Geographic, Sea Level Rise, and Virginia’s Coasts: Part II: Navigating Economic Impacts and Solutions

“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 – Rising Seas Interactive

Tim Folger’s popular National Geographic article focuses on the dangers of sea level rise across the planet, to which Virginia’s coasts will also be vulnerable. In addition to demonstrating that our planet’s coasts will be vulnerable, Folger goes on further to point out the economic risks rising seas pose and possible solutions for mitigating those risks.

Folger thinks sea level rise is no longer a secret or something we can keep denying, but rather he thinks its a reality we will all need to face sooner or later.  As discussed in Part I of this Blog article, while Folger did not discuss the risks for Virginia specifically, the Virginia coasts are not immune to rising seas.  In fact, Virginia’s expansive low-lying coast with a consistently increasing population make the risks of sea level rise a very serious threat.  Further, the economic impacts of sea level rise Folger points to are equally true for Virginia’s coasts.

What remains unclear is whether the solutions being looked at by New York City, New Orleans, and the Netherlands are also solutions for Virginia’s coasts.1

Folger focuses much of his attention in the article on addressing modern storms and their economic impacts on cities.  While the slow rise of sea level over time has enormous potential to place financial burdens on coastal regions, it is the comparatively brief modern storms that have thus far made the largest impact on coastal economies.  Hurricane Sandy cost New York City alone $19 billion in damages.2  In total, Hurricane Sandy cost the country $75 billion in damages, including damages to Virginia’s coasts,3  but despite the high sticker price,  Hurricane Sandy was only the second most expensive Hurricane in America’s history.  The damages caused by Hurricane Katrina were nearly twice as much as Sandy, totaling $133 billion.4

What this means is that the two most costly hurricanes happened within the last decade and as coastal populations continue to rise along with sea levels, we can only expect this trend to continue if there are no measures to implement change.  A report completed in 2011 estimated that Virginia’s Hampton Roads region could face a potential $45 billion in damages if a major storm surge caused by a hurricane hit.5  As Folger points out, storm surges and hurricanes hitting our nation’s coasts will only worsen as time goes on.

Folger also notes that both New Orleans and New York City are beginning to make efforts to prevent these tragedies from striking again.  New Orleans has already constructed a two mile long storm barrier capable of protecting the city from storm surges.  At a cost of only $1.1 billion, it is more than worth the cost of potential damages if the city was left unprotected.6  As New York City continues in it’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy, the city is still mulling over a few options for protecting it from future damages.  Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a $19.5 billion plan for the city’s harbor that included a system of conventional man-made barriers, oyster barriers, and sluice gates to protect the city from future events.7

However, the measures in New Orleans and New York City are targeted at mitigating the effects of dramatic, but short-term events and less focused on preventing the long-term, gradual rise of sea level that will also impact Virginia’s coasts.  Perhaps, it is the measures taken in the Netherlands identified by Folger that are most applicable to Virginia’s coasts.8  For centuries the Netherlands have dealt with addressing gradual flooding events on their coasts through their comprehensive strategy of dikes.

Folger characterizes the Netherlands as pioneers when it comes to coastal planning.  The country boasts miles of man-made sea barriers, 10,000 miles of dikes, movable pylon barriers, and floating structures that are architecturally striking, while remaining one hundred times lighter than glass.9  In fact, much of the Netherlands’ low-lying coasts have nearly unnoticeable barriers and dikes that seamlessly blend into the landscape unnoticed.  However, what is perhaps most notable about the Netherlands plans for combating sea level rise is that many of these improvements are built to withstand 10,000 year floods, while it is almost unheard of for Americans to plan further in the future than 100 year flooding events.10  Therefore, it seems that as Virginia and other coastal regions begin planning for sea level rises in 2100, we could benefit from following the example set by the Netherlands by planing for larger flooding events.

However, the strategies for mitigating sea level rise in the Netherlands offer even more promise for the Virginia coasts because of their adherence to making their protective strategies as natural as possible.  Nearly all of the coastal regions in the Netherlands are covered in man-made barriers and dikes, but most of these constructions are cleverly hidden, tucked under streets, buildings, and removed from sight.11  The ability to hide and conceal these measures brings special appeal to Virginia’s coasts, which have an economic interest in keeping the coasts scenically beautiful and capable of continuing to draw in tourists.12

In addition, the Netherlands boast the Zandmotor, which allows an enormous volume of sand to be applied to one coastal area once and then works with the natural movements of wind, sea, and waves to spread the sand along the beach gradually over time — broadening the natural dunes and protecting areas further inland.  All of these natural measures taken in the Netherlands and discussed by Folger in his article show great promise for Virginia’s coasts and should be considered as Virginia continues to plan for rising seas.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that any of the solutions being considered by New York City, New Orleans, or the Netherlands will be perfect fits for Virginia’s coasts.  While New Orleans has already installed effective sea barriers that withstood over 13.6 ft storm surges and New York City is considering similar measures, these measures are just for the cities themselves.13  The measures outlined in New York’s plan may ultimately protect a 520 mile area, but this still remains a significantly less daunting area to protect than Virginia’s 10,577 miles of vulnerable coastline.14  And while the efforts taken by the Netherlands are far more comprehensive, the Netherlands still only has 1,189 total miles of coast to protect.15  Further, the efforts in the Netherlands have been made slowly and deliberately over 1,000 years, while many coastal areas in Virginia haven’t even fully mapped out the extent of the threats.16

As Virginians, we remain at-risk for sea level rise and from an economic perspective, there is a lot at stake whenever a major hurricane event occurs.  In addition, Virginia’s expansive, 10,000 miles of coastline is also at risk to suffer significantly from the slow, gradual effects of sea level rise expected by 2100.  Unfortunately, though, unlike New Orleans and New York City, localized barriers stretching only a few miles will not protect all of Virginia’s coastal population.  We are also almost 1,000 years behind the efforts to protect coasts in the Netherlands.

What does of this really mean for Virginia’s coastline?  There will be a long, hard road ahead.  That is not to say that it cannot and will not be done, but it is simply to say that the costs Folgers predicts in his article need to be seriously considered by Virginians today.

Follow us on Facebook!