Norfolk Virginia Confronts Flooding and Sea Level Rising

By John Addison

John Addison is the author of two books - Save Gas, Save the Planet that details the future of transportation and Revenue Rocket about technology partner strategy. CNET, Clean Fleet Report, and Meeting of the Minds have published over 300 of his articles. Prior to being a writer and speaker, he was in partner and sales management for technology companies such as Sun Microsystems. Follow John on Twitter @soaringcities.

Mar 7, 2016 | Smart Cities | 0 comments


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Last week, the East Coast was battered with severe storms and flooding. Millions huddled inside in the face of tornado warnings. In Virginia, a state of emergency was declared.

At the mouth of Chesapeake Bay is Norfolk, Virginia, a historic city of 54 square miles of land are surrounded on three sides by water, and home to about 250,000.

City experts and scientists at nearby Old Dominion University forecast that by 2100, sea level will be 1.5 to 7 feet higher in Norfolk. Since much of the city is near sea level, the impact is large. Since 1960, Norfolk’s flooding has increased 320 percent.

In the face of global warming and rising sea level, present tidal flooding is just the beginning. Hundred-year storms now hit every few years. During Hurricane Irene, an 8-foot coastal storm surge pushed up the Elizabeth River, inundating entire neighborhoods, such as Ohio Creek. Norfolk is experiencing sea rise faster than similar cities because of land subsidence, as Virginia paper mills deplete groundwater.

The stakes are high. Norfolk is the third largest cargo port on the East Coast, from which Maersk manages the largest fleet of US-flag vessels. Norfolk is home to our largest naval base, headquarters of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, homeport of the Second Fleet, and one of two NATO Strategic Command headquarters.

Norfolk has a long history of thriving in the face of adversity. During the American Revolution, the city survived eight hours of constant British naval bombardment. Most of the buildings were destroyed, and then replaced with a greater city after the war. Now, rather than denying climate change, Norfolk is confronting it head on, becoming a more resilient city.

Resilience Plan in the face of Climate Change

I recently joined 10,000 scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for presentations about climate change, sea level rise, and energy. One of the sessions was an excellent presentation by Norfolk’s Dr. Katerina Oskarsson.

Norfolk has a comprehensive resilience plan. What we learn from Norfolk will help other cities threatened with sea rise and flooding, from New York to Miami, and from San Francisco to San Diego. Over 100 million Americans living near the ocean are vulnerable to storms and flooding.

After years of reacting to disasters such as Katrina and Sandy, the United States is now being more proactive. This January, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development and the Rockefeller Foundation announced $1 billion of National Disaster Resilience Competition winners in states including New York, Louisiana, California, Iowa, and Virginia. $115 million of the Virginia award is for the Ohio Creek Watershed in Norfolk, which includes 450 low to moderate-income homes. Although part of the project is to hold water back, more important are plans let water flow where it wants to go. This approach has been most successful in the Netherlands. The plan includes:

  • Protect the shoreline from 11-foot storm surges with a mile-long berm.
  • Create a living shoreline, rather than build homes at water’s edge. The shoreline is designed to attenuate wave energy and prevent erosion.
  • Create an 11-foot perimeter around the community.
  • Elevate key roads to 11 feet and construct a higher bridge.
  • Capture rainfall in distributed holding areas including barrels, rain gardens, marshes, and parks.
  • Route roof gutters and downspouts to water storage devices.
  • Create green spaces in areas where water needs to flow during flooding.
  • Add 8 tide control devices in 5 locations.
  • Upgrade small-piped storm water systems, which are now overwhelmed during flooding.
  • Upgrade some streets and parking to permeable pavement.
  • Plant almost 500 trees.

The result of this seven-year project will be a resilient neighborhood, graced with a living shoreline and more greenspace. There will be safer walking and bicycling. Beyond this neighborhood, Norfolk hopes to apply the lessons learned to other parts of the city. Flooding and sea level rise must be considered in zoning and approval of new development.

Norfolk has a vision of being a coastal city of the future. It has always been a city surrounded with water. In the future, it hopes to co-exist with the ebbs and flows of water.

For over 100 million Americans living in coastal cities, simply rebuilding in harm’s way will not be acceptable. Resiliency projects, such as Ohio Creek Watershed, will be critical in the upcoming decades.

Sea level rise will not stop in this century; it will accelerate. In the centuries ahead more decisive action is needed.

How much sea level rising do we face?

By the end of the last ice age, sea level rise accelerated to 400 feet above its level before ice melting. Today, our biggest long-term forcing of sea rise is the melting underway in the Antarctic and in Greenland.

Among the scientists at the AAAS conference, there was zero debate that we are experiencing global warming, anthropogenic climate change, and sea level rising. Zero. When coal, oil and natural gas are burned, carbon combines with oxygen to produce CO2. The CO2 emitted traps heat in the atmosphere. The trapped heat energy from 2015 emissions is the equivalent of 140 million Hiroshima bombs. Over 90 percent of increased heat is stored in the oceans. Warmer water expands and sea rises.

The rate of sea rise is difficult to predict. Scientists cannot easily handicap government protection of coal-power electric utilities, subsidies for burning oil and gas, and actions of future leaders. Although the rate of melting is difficult to forecast, we appear past the tipping point for melting in Greenland and the Antarctic.

In the centuries ahead, New York, Washington D.C., Miami, San Francisco, and coastal cities around the world will be transformed as seas rise by ten, twenty, and thirty feet. We must face the reality that people need to live on higher ground and even other cities.

When Thomas Jefferson was a young man he lived near water’s edge in Virginia cities like Williamsburg, Richmond, and in our nation’s capital. As an older man, he lived in the Monticello, 850 feet above sea level. Our third president was always one to take the long view.

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