Climate Change in Virginia

What will flood in Virginia if sea level rises 5-10 feet, or more...
What will flood in Virginia if sea level rises 5-10 feet, or more...
Source: Environmental Protection Agency, Maps of Lands Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise: Modeled Elevations Along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts

Sea level 135,000 years ago were approximately at today's level. Water was then trapped in continental ice sheets until the Last Glacial Maximum was reached about 20,000 years ago. At the time, sea level was 400 feet lower than today.

For the next 6,000 years, gradual global warming led to a 60-70 foot rise in sea level. A pulse of melt water created a rapid rise for 1,000 years that could have been as fast as 53 mm/year. During the Younger Dryas period of global cooling around 12,900-11,800 years ago BP (Before Present), the rate of sea level rise slowed substantially. A second melt water pulse 8,200 years ago created another period of rapid sea level rise. Gradual melting of ice sheets followed, and sea levels stabilized about 6,000-7,000 years ago.1

after the Last Glacial Maximum, sea level rise included irregular melt water pulses
after the Last Glacial Maximum, sea level rise included irregular melt water pulses
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, The Great Ice Meltdown and Rising Seas: Lessons for Tomorrow

If the earth warms at rates predicted by some studies, the oceans will rise for two main reasons - the expansion of the existing water as it heats, and the addition of additional water as the ice melts off the land at Antarctica. A study in 2021 concluded that the temperature of the Chesapeake Bay had risen about 2°F since the mid-1980's.

Sea level rise will affect primarily the eastern edge of Virginia, while changes in rainfall/temperature will affect the entire state.

Scientists are monitoring two species that grow on rock outcrops in Shenandoah National Park, three-toothed cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) and Appalachian fir clubmoss (Huperzia appalachiana). Virginia's mountains are at the edge of the current range for those species, so increased temperatures could cause them to disappear from Virginia.2

Shenandoah National Park is monitoring the ability of three-toothed cinquefoil and Appalachian fir clubmoss to cope with climate change
Shenandoah National Park is monitoring the ability of three-toothed cinquefoil and Appalachian fir clubmoss to cope with climate change
Source: National Park Service, Photo Monitoring of High-Elevation Plants in Shenandoah National Park (Figure 4)

Predictions about global warming by 2080 if emissions of greenhouse gases are not constrained suggest that Virginia cities will experience temperatures now common in Texas and Alabama. Species adapted to Virginia's current climate may disappear, especially if they are at the southern end of their habitat range. Warming temperatures could cause red spruce, brook trout, yellow birch, northern red oak, eastern hemlock, white pine, and the wood frog to disappear from the state.

Populations of species now near the northern limit of their range, including the oak toad, Cope's gray treefrog, and the bald cypress, may increase within Virginia as temperatures and rainfall increase. Adaptation to changing habitats is a normal process. Species ranging from mastodons to mallard ducks occupied new territory as the ice sheet withdrew from Pennsylvania 18,000 years ago.3

Virginia cities in 2080 will experience temperatures and rainfall currently common much further south
Virginia cities in 2080 will experience temperatures and rainfall currently common much further south
Source: University of Maryland, What will climate feel like in 60 years?

Sea level is rising at nearly an inch a century now on the Atlantic Ocean coastline of Virginia. Water levels are rising as glaciers and ice on Antarctica/Greenland melt, as as the oceans get warmer they swell up. In addition, the land along Virginia's Atlantic Ocean shoreline is dropping, as the edge of the continent adjust to the loss of the heavy ice sheet that melted away 18,000 years ago.

sea level is rising in part because extra trapped heat creates thermal expansion of the oceans, increasing the volume
sea level is rising in part because extra trapped heat creates thermal expansion of the oceans, increasing the volume
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Climate Change: Global Sea Level

In 2022, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that by 2050, sea level in Hampton Roads would rise by 15-18 inches. That increase was projected no matter how current greenhouse gas emissions might be reduced. Previous emissions plus continued land subsidence would result in changing water levels. Higher water would threaten waterfront roads and housing across Hampton Roads by 2050, with intermittent nuisance flooding at "King Tides" becomming a common occurence in low-lying areas.

If the rise continued at the predicted rate, Jamestown Island will be underwater in 2107 during the 500th anniversary of the arrival of English colonists. In a thousand years the Eastern Shore, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Suffolk could be underwater or become offshore sandbars.

Since Europeans began mapping the Chesapeake Bay, over 500 islands have disappeared. By the end of the 1800's, news stories noted how the islands were washing away. Holland Island in Maryland had over 350 residents in 1910, living on 160 acres. The last house remaining, which had been built in 1888, collapsed in 2010 as the remnants of the island washed away.

Sea level rise has not been steady for centuries. It increased significantly around 1850, as the Industrial Revolution increased emissions of greenhouse gases and spurred warmer sea temperatures. On average, the edge of marsh and forest is moving 1.6 feet inland each year in the Chesapeake Bay. Saltwater is poisoning the roots of the trees, killing them and creating "ghost forests."

Today sea level is rising faster than wetlands can migrate inland. One result is that the wetlands are sequestering carbon at a higher rate. Organic material is being buried, and carbon concentrations in the sediments are substantially higher than in the past.4

However, the Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan completed in 2021 concluded that by 2080:5

...an estimated 170,000 acres, or 89%, of existing tidal wetlands and 3,800 acres, or 38%, of existing dunes and beaches may be permanently inundated, effectively lost to open water

Rural shoreline communities on the Eastern Shore, Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, and Hampton Roads are particularly at risk. Roads that currently flood intermittently will be covered more regularly, isolating houses during "blue sky" floods as well as storm events. Septic systems installed when groundwater levels were lower will fail in saturated soils, causing raw sewage to migrate into nearby creeks and rivers.6

the last house on Maryland's Holland Island, built in 1888, washed away in 2010
the last house on Maryland's Holland Island, built in 1888, washed away in 2010
Source: Flickr, Water front home for sail (by baldeaglebluff, October 21, 2009)

In the next century, the costs of insurance will reflect the perceived risks of flooding during a major storm. Insurance costs will rise, driving new development inland, long before buildings in Norfolk are recycled as oyster reefs or fish swim through the windows.

the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts nearly half of homes at Chincoteague will be flooded regularly by 2045
the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts nearly half of homes at Chincoteague will be flooded regularly by 2045
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists, US Coastal Property at Risk from Rising Seas

Seawalls and bulkheads can armor the shoreline temporarily. At some point, only retreat from the rising water will be cost-effective. Civic leaders who champion new development in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, such as the Tide light rail system, will be forced to consider the option of moving infrastructure further inland.

Even the dead in Norfolk are threatened. The Riverside Memorial Park cemetery is a high spot, topographically, in the city bt the riverbanks are being undercut by erosion. In 2022, 10 headstones and the grave contents were at risk of washing down the slope into the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River. The city estimated it would cost $2 million to repair 1,500 feet of shoreline.7

rising sea level threatened to erode the shoreline at Riverside Memorial Park in Norfolk, and spill graves into the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River
rising sea level threatened to erode the shoreline at Riverside Memorial Park in Norfolk, and spill graves into the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Even a Category 1 hurricane can create a disaster now. On September 6, 2019, Hurricane Dorian sent a seven-foot high storm surge from Pamlico Sound over Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. Nearly every building experienced flood damage, and after another winter storm damaged NC 12 the island could not reopen for tourists until December 2.

As residents assessed how many more storms their tourism-based economy could survive before government agencies stopped financing recovery and rebuilding efforts, a county commissioner commented:8

Is this really sustainable? The answer is pretty clearly no... But what's the timeline? No one has been able to say, "You’ve got 15 years, 40 years, 100 years." The clear-eyed vision is resiliency then retreat.

in Prince William County, houses on Bay Street east of Veterans Park are at risk if sea level rises four feet
in Prince William County, houses on Bay Street east of Veterans Park are at risk if sea level rises four feet
Source: Citizens Climate Lobby, Surging Seas Risk Zone Map

In Virginia, 48% of energy-related CO emissions in 2017 were generated by the transportation sector, primarily from cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes.9

in 2017, the largest sector of the economy generating carbon dioxide was transportation
in 2017, the largest sector of the economy generating carbon dioxide was transportation
Source: US Energy Information Administration, 2017 State energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by sector

the Environmental Protection Agency calculated the transportation sector generated less than one-third  of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019
the Environmental Protection Agency calculated the transportation sector generated less than one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019
the Environmental Protection Agency calculated the transportation sector generated less than one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019
Source: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks and Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data Explorer

Natural gas is primarily methane, and methane molecules trap more heat than carbon dioxide molecules. Today, 60% of methane in the atmosphere is generated by human activities. Roughly 30% come from wetlands, and the remaining 10% from natural processes such as fires, thawing permafrost, and even emissions from termites as they decompose wood.

Though methane molecules break down after a decade in the atmosphere, they are responsible for roughly 20% of the global warming that has occurred since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700's. Since 1750, the methane concentration in the atmosphere has increased 150%.

Construction of new pipelines to increase use of natural gas has been controversial in Virginia. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was cancelled after years of opposition, reducing the potential for importing "fracked" gas from Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Oil and gas development has increased methane emissions from intentional releases at wells and leaks in the pipeline transmission network. About 25% of the human-caused methane releases are associated with energy, while 14% comes from wastewater treatment and landfills. Some human-caused methane is due to agriculture; livestock emit methane as they digest vegetation.10

An international meeting to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions resulted in the 2015 Paris Agreement. A Conference of Parties with 196 members set a target to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.11

The model was the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. That international agreement was adopted in 1987. Signatories agree to lower the emissions of chlorine- and bromine-containing chemicals that depleted the ozone layer high in the mid-latitude stratosphere. Expansion of the "ozone hole" above Antarctica allowed more harmful ultraviolet radiation to reach the surface of the earth.

Nations made slow but steady progress. By 2022, ozone-depleting substances in the mid-latitude stratosphere had ben reduced by 50%, below levels measured in 1980.12

The United States joined the Paris Agreement at the end of the Obama Administration, but President Trump withdrew from it. On his inauguration day in 2021, President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement,

Local and state governments acted on their own initiative after President Trump revered Federal policy regarding climate change. To help meet the targets set in the Paris Agreement, in 2020 all 24 jurisdictions belonging to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) adopted a 2030 regional greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal. They set a target of cutting the emissions from each jurisdiction to 50 percent of the 2005 emission levels by 2030.13

Different jurisdictions then began to create climate action plans, and appointed sustainability commissions to generate public support. One of the astest to act was Fairfax County. Its Board of Supervisors adopted a Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) in 2021.

In Prince William County, the elected supervisors adopted Climate and Resiliency goals in 2020 and authorized a Sustainability Office in 2021. TIn 2022 the county hired staff and the supervisors appointed a Sustainability Commission of local residents to create a Community Energy and Sustainability Master Plan (CESMP) by 2023. That citizen commission quickly began considering "fast-track" action steps which could be funded in the next county budget, even before the Community Energy and Sustainability Master Plan would be completed.14

Carbon Sequestration in Virginia

Evacuating Hampton Roads When Hurricanes Strike

Life and Death of Chesapeake Bay Islands

Living Shorelines and Structural Shoreline Practices

Seawall at Jamestown Island

Will Norfolk (and the Rest of Hampton Roads) Drown?

the average temperature has been rising in Virginia since 1970
the average temperature has been rising in Virginia since 1970
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Temperature Trends by State

Links

in the Pliocene Epoch three million years ago, sea levels were higher and the coastline was at modern I-95
in the Pliocene Epoch three million years ago, sea levels were higher and the coastline was at modern I-95
Source: Dr. Ron Blakey, Paleogeography and Geologic History of North America

References

1. Ervan G. Garrison et al., "Prehistoric Site Potential and Historic Shipwrecks on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf," U.S. Department of the Interior, February 2011, pp.10-11, https://www.academia.edu/7194922/Prehistoric_Site_Potential_and_Historic_Shipwrecks_on_the_Atlantic_OCS; "The Great Ice Meltdown and Rising Seas: Lessons for Tomorrow," National Aeronautics and Space Administration, June 2012, https://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/briefs/gornitz_10/; Lauren J. Gregoire, Antony J. Payne, Paul J. Valdes, "Deglacial rapid sea level rises caused by ice-sheet saddle collapses," Nature, Volume 487 (July, 2012), https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11257 (last checked March 18, 2020)
2. "Photo Monitoring of High-Elevation Plants in Shenandoah National Park," National Park Service Natural Resource Report NPS/SHEN/NRR—2017/1542, November 2017, pp.1-2, https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/DownloadFile/587828; "How the Chesapeake Bay is warming - and what it means for us, according to new research," Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 9, 2021, https://richmond.com/news/state-and-regional/how-the-chesapeake-bay-is-warming-and-what-it-means-for-us-according-to-new/article_1dfc7f21-8fa4-51d0-8955-36ca62b502f2.html (last checked November 9, 2021)
3. "What will climate feel like in 60 years?," University of Maryland, https://fitzlab.shinyapps.io/cityapp/; Austin Kane, Chris Burkett, Scott Kloper, Jacob Sewall, "Virginia's Climate Modeling and Species Vulnerability Assessment: How Climate Data Can Inform Management and Conservation," National Wildlife Federation, 2013, pp.14-16, http://bewildvirginia.org/climate-change/virginias-climate-vulnerability-assessment.pdf; "Mastodons migrated vast distances in response to climate change," United Press International, September 1, 2020, https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2020/09/01/Mastodons-migrated-vast-distances-in-response-to-climate-change/4091598968373/ (last checked September 2, 2020)
4. "As Sea Level Rises, Wetlands Crank Up Their Carbon Storage," Shorelines blog, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, https://sercblog.si.edu/as-sea-level-rises-wetlands-crank-up-their-carbon-storage/; Ina Richter, "Gone with(in) the Chesapeake Bay's waters: Reflections on society's thresholds to migration given island sinking," Special Issue: Small Island and Natural Hazards, Global Environment, Volume 8, Number 1 (2015), p.154, p.161, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44133710; "The Last House on Holland Island," Sometimes Interesting blog, April 9, 2013, https://sometimes-interesting.com/last-house-on-holland-island/; "Vanished Chesapeake Islands," Chesapeake Quarterly, October 2014, https://www.chesapeakequarterly.net/sealevel/main8/; Michael S. Kearney, J. Court Stevenson, "Island Land Loss and Marsh Vertical Accretion Rate Evidence for Historical Sea-Level Changes in Chesapeake Bay," Journal of Coastal Research, Volume 7, Number 2 (Spring, 1991), p.403, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4297845; "The Spooky Rise of 'Ghost Forests' Along the Eastern Seaboard," Gizmodo, March 16, 2021, https://earther.gizmodo.com/the-spooky-rise-of-ghost-forests-along-the-eastern-se-1846488939; "Sea levels, rainfall and temperatures will keep rising in Virginia, NOAA says in new climate projections," The Virginian-Pilot, February 15, 2022, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/environment/vp-nw-noaa-climate-summary-20220215-u6xpgn3g4nb6xgp63w2sdhr74e-story.html (last checked February 18, 2022)
5. "Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan - Phase One," Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), December 2021, p.XI, https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/crmp/plan (last checked December 8, 2021)
6. "At A Crossroads: Sea level rise is compromising septic systems around coastal Virginia," WHRO, December 6, 2021, https://whro.org/news/local-news/24820-at-a-crossroads-sea-level-rise-is-compromising-septic-systems-around-coastal-virginia (last checked December 8, 2021)
7. "Dozens of graves along Norfolk riverbank threatened by erosion," Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 21, 2022, https://richmond.com/news/state-and-regional/dozens-of-graves-along-norfolk-riverbank-threatened-by-erosion/article_796c3005-b713-5230-b7f3-c3098bf0dd7f.html (last checked May 21, 2022)
8. "Amid flooding and rising sea levels, residents of one barrier island wonder if it’s time to retreat," Washington Post, November 9, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/how-do-we-continue-to-have-life-here-amid-flooding-and-rising-sea-levels-residents-of-one-barrier-island-wonder-if-its-time-to-retreat/2019/11/09/dff076c0-fcab-11e9-ac8c-8eced29ca6ef_story.html; "Ocracoke will now open to visitors Dec. 2 after delays caused by winter storm," The Virginian-Pilot, November 22, 2019, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/vp-nw-ocracoke-open-20191122-uztkxj55gnf7dd6agz2qcpvpaa-story.html (last checked November 23, 2019)
9. "2017 State energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by sector," #4 of Energy-Related CO2 Emission Data Tables, US Energy Information Administration, https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/state/ (last checked December 5, 2020)
10. "Methane, explained," National Geographic, January 23, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/methane/ (last checked December 20, 2020)
11. "What is the Paris Agreement?," United Nations, https://unfccc.int/ndc-information/the-paris-agreement (last checked September 17, 2022)
12. "The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer," United Nations, https://ozone.unep.org/treaties/montreal-protocol; "Path to recovery of ozone layer passes a significant milestone," National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) Research News, August 24, 2022, https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/2900/Path-to-recovery-of-ozone-layer-passes-a-significant-milestone (last checked September 17, 2022)
13. "Biden returns US to Paris climate accord hours after becoming president," The Guardian, January 20, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/20/paris-climate-accord-joe-biden-returns-us; "Officials approve new 2030 regional greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal," Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), Occtober 14, 2020, https://www.mwcog.org/newsroom/2020/10/14/officials-approve-new-2030-regional-greenhouse-gas-emissions-reduction-goal-/ (last checked September 17, 2022)
14. "Sustainability Office," Prince William County, https://www.pwcva.gov/department/sustainability; "Draft List of 'Fast-Track' Climate Mitigation and Climate Resilience Measures," Sustainability Commission, Supplemental Documents, August 25, 2022, https://www.pwcva.gov/assets/2022-08/Fast-track%20measures.pdf (last checked September 17, 2022)

climate change will result in higher average temperatures in summer months  (1981-2010 on top, 2040-2059 on bottom)
climate change will result in higher average temperatures in summer months  (1981-2010 on top, 2040-2059 on bottom)
climate change will result in higher average temperatures in summer months (1981-2010 on top, 2040-2059 on bottom)
Source: Climate Impact Lab, Climate Impact Map


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