Bay Journal

Rising tide of sea-level warnings drowned out by wave of shoreline development

  • By Tom Horton on January 06, 2012
Skip Stiles stands on a bridge in Norfolk, where Wetlands Watch is based. Norfolk has the highest rate of sea-level rise on the Atlantic Coast, and Stiles is working with communities around Hampton Roads to protect themselves from rising waters.  (Dave Harp)

Sea-level around the Chesapeake Bay is rising. Larger-than-ever storm surges are a certainty. Land is sinking further. The time has come to plan an orderly human retreat from more development along the watershed's low-lying edges.

The science that backs this advice gets drowned out when developers wave big money at county officials craving revenue. A classic "lose-lose" - for the environment and for taxpayers - results.

The most recent example comes from the Northumberland (VA) County Board of Supervisors. They have tentatively approved a massive home-resort-marina complex on Bluff Point, a marshy, wooded peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake from Virginia's lovely Northern Neck.

The rural county - four stoplights, 13,000 residents - acknowledges rising sea level in its master development plan, placing Bluff Point in a "conservation" zone; but after consulting experts paid for partly by developer Tom Dingledine of Charlottesville, VA, the supervisors granted an "exception."

The developer may put some houses on poles as high as eight feet in the air if needed; and that might seem reasonable, given sea level could rise about three feet in the next century, according to Virginia's Climate Change Commission.

But this ignores that a foot of rise, with the Chesapeake's flattish edges, can move the Bay inland as much as 180 feet, and you can't put roads and sewer lines on eight-foot poles.

Then there are storm surges. In 2006, Tropical Storm Ernesto caused surges along Virginia's Bay shore of four to five feet-with six to eight foot waves rolling atop that.

And while there's no proof the global warming that's driving sea levels up will cause more storms, it's a matter of physics that warmer water will fuel bigger ones.

Even without bigger storms, surges high enough to cause flooding at Bluff Point will occur three times a year by century's end - and that with just a two-foot rise in sea level.

Those predictions come from Northrop Grumman, contractor for the U.S. Navy in Newport News. They are concerned about flooding while ships are being built, a process that can take six years for an aircraft carrier. With a three-foot sea-level rise, major floods would become 20 times as frequent.

The Bluff Point development is only one example of how our thinking about the Bay's edges must adapt to the new reality of rising seas, says William A. "Skip" Stiles, Jr., director of the Virginia nonprofit Wetlands Watch.

"If sea level is constant, your coastal region is your most valuable real estate; but with seas rising it becomes a money pit," he says.

Wetlands Watch regularly challenges places like Bluff Point on both ecological and fiscal grounds.

Tidal wetlands can stay ahead of sea-level rise up to a point by accumulating sediment and organic material and building on themselves. But projections are that tens of thousands of acres around the Chesapeake will drown in the next century. Dorchester County in Maryland stands to lose around 85,000 acres of marsh and forest by 2100, according to Maryland climate change experts.

The only way many wetlands could adapt would be if adjacent uplands are left undeveloped to give the wetlands a chance to migrate inland as the Bay rises, Stiles says. That's a good reason to leave places like Bluff Point in conservation zones.

Wetlands Watch has also opposed some new wetlands created as part of Virginia's wetlands banking system, whereby developers get 'credit' against wetlands they destroy.

Stiles explains that many "banked" wetlands are vulnerable to sea-level rise, and will create no lasting environmental benefit. To date, Virginia has dismissed his challenges.

A "double whammy" for wetlands comes as rising waters and increasing erosion lead shoreline owners to armor their waterfront. This cuts off the sediment nearby wetlands need to build ahead of rising water, Stiles says.

Ultimately the taxpayers will pick up the bills, bailing out places like Bluff Point as flooding escalates. Taxpayer-supported federal flood insurance programs, beach replenishment programs and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are all seeing costs soar as coastal flooding escalates. Private insurers have already pulled back from many coastal areas.

"It's time for all these government programs to recognize times have changed," Stiles says.

Indeed, while many Bay scientists think a three-foot rise by 2100 is reasonable, they don't rule out a rise up to six feet, based on the more rapid than expected melting of polar ice.

Hopes for reining in carbon dioxide and other climate change gases have dimmed with the recent refusal by the United States and China to take serious action before 2020 at the earliest.

Already we've heated the oceans to where they will keep releasing that heat for centuries, driving sea level higher no matter how sharply greenhouse gases are reduced.

It's time to sound the retreat.

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About Tom Horton

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is a freelance writer, splitting his time between Baltimore and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Read more articles by Tom Horton

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