Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Netherlands of America

This is what Norfolk, Virginia could be, according to recent reporting on PRI's The World.

We own a home 22 feet above sea-level, closer to the Atlantic than the end zones of a proverbial football field. I was listening to a story about preparing for climate change in coastal Virginia just as I drove past the structure that makes this possible -- a hurricane barrier built in 1966 to protect New Bedford and Fairhaven from hurricane storm surges. That wall is the world's largest such barrier, and could not be built today because of Nixon-era environmental regulations (see M.L. Baron's video and narrative for fascinating details). Without it, though, our bank would have required prohibitively expensive insurance or elaborate engineering before approving a mortgage so close to the steadily rising sea. (We have not delusions about that wall being a perfect defense, by the way. It was designed based on careful review of the previous 100 years of flood records.)

As I wrote in Climate Foxholes in late 2013, people with grown-up responsibilities such as running insurance companies are no longer able to avoid figuring climate change into their planning. Lately, the Scottish golf industry -- like the tea and coffee industries elsewhere -- is preparing for climate change, as described in some detail in journalist Robin Young's recent interview of turf agronomist Richard Windows. Even our own country's most audacious climate denier takes the risks seriously when it comes to his own golf courses.
Caption from original story: Hurricane Sandy sent 8-year-old Avery Solan out to play in the flooded streets of Norfolk, Virginia, in October 2012. The city is trying to prevent worse flooding as sea levels rise, and at the same time grow new industry in a region currently dependent on military jobs.  Credit: Rich-Joseph Facun/Reuters 
What intrigues me about the Norfolk example is that leaders there -- beginning, I think, with those who had to make long-term plans for the U.S. Navy's many facilities in the area -- were early adopters of a pragmatic, defensive approach to climate change; they now see themselves as being able to turn long-term peril into a growth industry.

Coastal Virginia is not the only place where planning for resilience to climate change is underway. Some of the greatest progress seems to be found in post-Sandy New York, including New York City and the neighboring Hudson Valley.

Lagniappe -- Why the focus on coastlines?

The effects of climate change are not limited to coastlines, as those who study agriculture, ecology, and a variety of other subjects well know. But the greater vulnerability of coastal areas to flooding does warrant significant attention. That vulnerability actually has several, interrelated causes:

  • Melting ice. About 2 percent of ALL the water on the planet is currently in the form of ice caps and glaciers. In many cases, that melting is accelerating (increasing at an increasing rate), lowering albedo (reflectivity) at the surface and thereby causing even more warming. Most people who know that sea levels are rising seem to be aware of only this cause.
  • Water already in the oceans is expanding as it warms, causing to to rise just as mercury rises in a thermometer. With average ocean depth at about 12,000 feet, we are very fortunate that the entire water column is not susceptible to thermal expansion.
Both of these factors raise Mean Sea Level, and it is easy to see why estimates vary as to exactly how much. Local sea level varies with topography and also, it turns out, with such local conditions as the amount of aquifer pumping that is taking place or sediment loads in nearby rivers.

Whatever the local sea level turns out to be, houses and business above that level can be at elevated risk for flooding. That is because winds, waves, and tidal surges from future storms (which may themselves be more frequently intense) will be occurring on top of higher local sea levels. So although our house at 22 feet would not ever become waterfront on a regular basis, it is potentially vulnerable to rising seas, making us quite grateful for the wall mentioned above.

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