Virginia: The State of Denial, Sinking

The harbor at Norfolk Virginia

Norfolk, Virginia, on one of the world’s great harbors in the world’s largest estuary, has long prospered because of its proximity to the sea. That tide is changing. (US Navy photo)

The rising waters of climate change are lapping at the foundations of Virginia’s second-largest city, and are repeatedly rolling over one of its premier tourist attractions. Norfolk city officials and National Park Service managers on Assateague Island are trying desperately to deal with the rising threat. But they get no help or even encouragement from the state government, whose official position is that there is no such thing as climate change, therefore the sea cannot be rising.

Little has changed about Norfolk’s situation since I wrote about it here [Sea Water Rising at Norfolk, Va.] in 2010. Except that sea-level rise everywhere is occurring faster than predicted, and especially so along the US mid-Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Maine. This just-released finding of the US Geological Survey (Yes, Virginia, there are people who work for the federal government who do recognize that climate change is happening) is thought to be related to the slowing of vast Atlantic Ocean currents, another byproduct of atmospheric warming.  Strike three for Norfolk in this regard is that the ground is sinking under it, in reaction to the retreat of North American glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.

Increasingly, the threat of rising water is making itself manifest. Oceanfront and canal-front neighborhoods are flooding so often that the salt water has killed the grass and the real-estate business. Agents who once said “Oh, great, it’s right on the water!” are now saying, “Oh, crap, it’s right on the water.” In historic old neighborhoods such as The Hague (according to an excellent piece on the subject in The Daily Climate), “for sale” signs are proliferating and getting old.

The water’s rising — a quarter of an inch a year — the floods are coming faster and getting worse. A direct strike by a Category Three hurricane, according to a recent study, would inundate the entire city. So naturally, when area delegates to the Virginia General Assembly put in a bill appropriating money to help study these things and help decide how to deal with them,  the answer from the Tea Party Taliban (thank you, Will McAvoy) was no, no, no, that would be recognizing climate change, in which we do not believe. To get the money, they had to change the language of the request to say they merely wanted to study frequent flooding. “Recurrent” was the word in which everybody agreed to believe.

Belief systems are also under assault on Assateague Island, a barrier island off Virginia’s coast that boasts one of the country’s most pristine beaches. As pristine as a beach can be that draws 1.2 million people every summer, and that requires parking for a thousand cars.

Now here’s what scientists and the National Park Service “believe” about barrier islands: their nature is to roll, like ponderous tank treads with dunes on top, beaches to seaward and marshes on the land side. They roll toward the land before storms and rising seas, back outward in calmer years.

We’re not having any calm years these days. Twice in the past three years the parking lots on Assateague have been obliterated, and they cost $700,000 to replace. So the scientists and the Park Service are saying, look, the barrier is moving (no argument there, each replacement parking lot has been west of the previous one, which is now under water), we need to pull back, build a parking lot farther north, run shuttle buses to the pristine beach.

No way, say the mayors and the developers. The parking lots on Assateague are worth $42 million a year to the town of Chincoteague, through which the cars must pass before and after they park. They like it that way, and see no reason anything should change, because they do not believe anything is changing. Pump sand onto the beach after a storm, replace the damn parking lots with bigger parking lots (now that’s a change we can believe in) and ignore the damn “scientists.”

There should be five Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Add Greed, riding a yellow bulldozer.

[Kudos to Jennifer Weeks, who has done exhaustive reporting on this issue here and here, for the Daily Climate.]



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