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. 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 and Appalachian fir clubmoss. Virginia's mountains are the edge of the current range for those species, so increased temperatures could cause the two species to disappear from Virginia.2

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. If the rise continues at that 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 weee 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

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 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:5

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.6

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 geenhouse gas emissions in 2019
the Environmental Protection Agency calculated the transportation sector generated less than one-third of total geenhouse gas emissions in 2019
the Environmental Protection Agency calculated the transportation sector generated less than one-third of total geenhouse 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.7

Carbon Sequestration in Virginia

Evacuating Hampton Roads When Hurricanes Strike

Life and Death of Chesapeake Bay Islands

Living Shorelines and Structural Shoreline Practices

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, 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. "National park plants could indicate climate change," Northern Virginia Daily, June 12, 2014, http://www.nvdaily.com/news/2014/06/national-park-plants-could-indicate-climate-change.php (last checked June 17, 2014)
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 (last checked March 19, 2021)
5. "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)
6. "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)
7. "Methane, explained," National Geographic, January 23, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/methane/ (last checked December 20, 2020)

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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