The streets of Norfolk, Virginia, regularly flood now at high tide, often trapping people in their homes and preventing them from getting to work.
The City's $24 million Chrysler Museum of Art was forced to empty its basement and move its HVAC system to the top floor of the building.
Churches in Norfolk now post tide charts on their web sites so people can determine whether they can even get to church. Some churches are being sold because they can't pay their skyrocketing flood insurance premiums.
Climate change is not "debated" in Norfolk, Virginia. Due to an unfortunate confluence of global warming, the Gulf Stream, and the physical placement of the city, the sea around Norfolk Virginia (pop. 250,000), home of the largest naval base on the planet, is rising faster than anywhere else on the East Coast. Norfolk ranks behind only New Orleans in terms of American cities whose populations are threatened by rising seas.
The problem is particularly urgent in Norfolk and the rest of Tidewater Virginia — which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has ranked second only to New Orleans in terms of population threatened by sea-level rise — due to a fateful convergence of lousy luck. First, the seas are generally rising as the planet warms. Second, the Gulf Stream is circulating more slowly, causing more water to slosh toward the North Atlantic coast. In 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey declared a 600-mile stretch of coastline, from North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras to Boston, a “sea-level rise hotspot,” with rates increasing at three to four times the global average.
Third, the land around Norfolk is sinking, a phenomenon called “subsidence,” due in part to continuing adjustments in the earth’s crust to the melting of glaciers from the last ice age. Plus, the city is slowly sinking into the crater of a meteor that slammed into the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay 35 million years ago.
The Virginia General Assembly tasked the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to project the potential sea rise. According to the VIMS study, if significant efforts are not made to reduce greenhouse gases, the seas will rise approximately 5 and 1/2 feet
by 2100, effectively drowning the city. A worst case scenario assuming increased melting of glaciers and the ice caps projects 8 feet
of sea rise.
The City hired a Dutch firm in 2012 to estimate the cost of building adaptation to mitigate the effects of just one foot of sea rise. The projected cost was one billion dollars, equivalent to the City's entire annual budget.
Options for dealing with the water are limited, and expensive. The city could protect itself with more barriers. Williams lamented, for instance, that a new $318 million light-rail system — paid for primarily with federal funds -- was built at sea level. With a little foresight, he said, the tracks could have been elevated to create a bulwark against the tides.
As it stands, the new rail system could itself be swept away, the money wasted. “Nowhere do we have resiliency built in,” he said.
A second option calls for people to abandon the most vulnerable parts of town, to “retreat somewhat from the sea,” as Mayor Paul D. Fraim put it in a 2011 interview, when he became the first sitting politician in the nation to raise the prospect.
To make matters even worse, the city incorporates capped toxic waste sites along the Elizabeth River. The article raises the possibility that these Superfund sites may simply "pop" and "float away."
The dangers posed by sea rise to Norfolk are not "newly discovered." The military has been attempting to address the effects on the Navy base since the 1990's. What's changed is the attitude of the U.S. Congress, specifically House Republicans:
At Naval Station Norfolk, sea-level rise prompted a decision in the late 1990s to raise the station’s 12 piers, said Joe Bouchard, base commander at the time. Construction has since been completed on only four, he said, adding that work was halted in 2008, when the recession hit, the federal budget deficit soared and Congress began frantically slashing spending.
“That’s when Washington went bonkers,” said Bouchard, an expert on the national security implications of climate change.
"Went bonkers," of course, means when the Tea Party arrived on the scene.
The third and final option for the City to save itself is by raising the city itself, including buildings, roads and other structures. But there is simply no way to pay for it, particularly with Miami and New York equally vulnerable and looking for federal assistance. And the problem at that point will not be limited to Norfolk, Virginia. U.S. Congressman driving to work will have an interesting commute:
Larry Atkinson, an oceanographer who is co-director of the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative at Old Dominion University, said when the mayor was asked about the report, he waved away the question. “He says, ‘I can’t think about five feet. What do you want me to do, move the whole city?’ ”
It’s not just Norfolk, Atkinson said. Much of the Eastern Shore would be underwater; Baltimore and Washington would be in trouble, too. “At five feet,” he said, “the Mall’s flooded.”
Maybe that's when they'll finally start paying attention.