The Bulletin

Report says climate change will have ‘increasingly disruptive effect’ on coastal Va.

By: - August 18, 2021 12:02 am

A statue of Neptune on Virginia Beach’s oceanfront. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Climate change is expected to have an “increasingly disruptive effect” on residents of Virginia’s coastal areas, with statewide repercussions, a report commissioned by the General Assembly in 2020 found. 

“For Virginians living on the coast, the immediate consequences will be rising sea levels, more intense and frequent storms, and warmer and more variable local temperatures,” concludes the report from the Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine, which was presented to the Joint Commission on Technology and Science Tuesday. Those changes will “translate into recurrent flooding, saltwater intrusion into drinking water, inundation of septic system and threats to public health, among other issues.” 

The report is the result of a 2020 resolution passed by the General Assembly asking the joint commission to study the “safety, quality of life and economic consequences of weather and climate-related events on coastal areas in Virginia.” 

Contributors to the study included representatives from Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, coastal planning district commissions, the Port of Virginia and Virginia Economic Development Partnership, state universities, private industry and law firms. 

Jessica Whitehead, executive director of the Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience at Old Dominion University, told the Mercury the report offers policymakers “the top line” of how climate change is affecting Virginia.

“It synthesizes all of this different information and studies and state of the knowledge, and it puts it into a document that any elected official can read,” she said. 

Among the notable impacts highlighted: 

  • Coastal Virginia’s rate of relative sea level rise — a measurement that combines both sea level rise and land subsidence — is among the highest rates in the U.S.
  • Relative sea levels could rise by 6.69 feet between 2000 and 2100 at Sewells Point in Norfolk.
  • Norfolk’s stormwater infrastructure has lost 50 percent of its designed capacity due to rising sea levels.
  • “In Hampton Roads, flood damage from a 100-year storm — that is, a storm with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year — would cause the regional economy to shrink by $611 million the following year.”
  • “Hotter, more frequent heat waves could lead to an annual average of 170 excess deaths on dangerously hot days by the 2040s.”
  • 209 miles, or 13.8 percent, of state-maintained roadways on the Eastern Shore “face permanent inundation with three feet of sea-level rise — possibly as early as 2060.”
  • “The Eastern Shore is far more susceptible to saltwater intrusion than areas to the west of the Chesapeake Bay.”

The report also provides four recommendations for the state. These include the creation of a council to plan for statewide resiliency, the establishment of a climate impact review as part of state agency planning, the creation of a Climate Change and Resilience Resource Center, and the provision of incentives for resiliency projects.

Commission Chair Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, advised the body to “take very seriously those recommendations and follow up in subsequent sessions of the General Assembly.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.