Norfolk Prepares For Battle With Rising Sea Level

Mar 20, 2017
Originally published on March 22, 2017 9:14 am

When President Donald Trump visited a shipyard at Newport News, Va. this month, he told an audience of sailors and shipbuilders that the United States would defeat any danger and handle any threat.

But one of the biggest threats to the military is one that Trump didn't mention: sea level rise.  

In the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, which includes Norfolk and Newport News, the battle with the rising sea is a matter of national security because the low-lying area is home to so many military bases that it has been called the world's greatest collection of military might.

The shipyard where Trump appeared is the only facility that builds American aircraft carriers. The region also hosts key Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard bases, one of the nation's busiest ports, and several cities and towns.  

So, there's a lot at risk. And the clock is ticking faster than almost anywhere else.

A few miles from the shipyard, at one end of a pier on Naval Station Norfolk, the federal government has recorded some of its most alarming data about climate change.

Since 1927, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has had a tidal gauge at Sewells Point, the peninsula where the base sits. It has recorded the highest relative sea level rise on the East Coast, nearly 15 inches.

And that rate is expected to accelerate in coming years.

Flooding already is so routine that giant rulers have been erected beside the city roads outside the base to show whether water is too deep to drive into.

In little more than two decades the main road into the base could be flooding almost daily at high tide.

When the Navy adds new buildings or replaces infrastructure like a pier or barracks, it builds them higher, said Capt. Dean VanderLey, who heads engineering for Navy infrastructure along much of the East Coast.

But there's no specific overall plan for protecting the whole base from flooding

or the increasing risk of catastrophic damage in a hurricane.

"Fortunately it's not going to hit us overnight," VanderLay said. "But it's something where I don't know that we've fully defined the problem and we have definitely not fully defined the solution."

The unusual flooding risks at Hampton Roads were highlighted in a report last summer by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It said 128 U.S. installations are at risk from sea level rise.

Those include Camp Lejeune, where low-lying areas could flood daily by the year 2100, including barrier islands where the Marines train for their signature amphibious landings.

The iconic Marine training depot on Parris Island also could be mostly under water by then, along with two of the many military bases in Hampton Roads.

But the problem in Hampton Roads isn't just military.

"When it comes to sea level rise, the local communities and the Navy really work hand-in-hand," VanderLey said. "And  if you think about it, it wouldn't be helpful even if the Navy decided to make the Naval Station for a fortress that was impervious to the sea because all of our people live in the community, our utilities come from the community…. so we're really hand-in-hand with the community."

Because of the high stakes for national security -- and the speed of sea level rise -- the Obama administration had turned Hampton Roads into a test bed for ideas for use in other seaside cities and bases.

Ray Toll, a former Navy Captain, is a sea level rise expert at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. He headed a project to develop a model for multiple levels of government, branches of the service, and other types of agencies to work together to deal with rising seas.

That led to other projects, including the first Pentagon-funded study by local governments of how to handle sea level rise.

And there was a $120 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that's mostly being used to come up with ways to blunt the effects of flooding for a Norfolk neighborhood.

But that was HUD under Obama. Now the agency falls under Trump, who has called climate change a hoax and whose administration removed Obama's Climate Action Plan from the White House web site within minutes of Trump's inauguration.

Tolls says the various studies and planning efforts wouldn't have happened without federal funding, and actually building infrastructure to blunt the effects will require a lot more money.

"So what happens if it dries up?" he said. "I worry that if we lose the momentum, then what has happened might atrophy away."

The Trump Administration is proposing a $54 billion increase in defense spending, and a big question is whether any of it will be aimed at sea level rise.

If not, that could be a sign that progress will be greatly delayed for the next four or eight years.

That's a long time to wait for solutions, especially here in Hampton Roads, said Penn State University professor David Titley, a retired rear admiral and meteorologist who once led the Navy's climate change task force.

"Norfolk, my guess is 10 to 15 years and if we don't get serious by then, we're really cutting it close," he said. "Maybe some of the other places we've got another decade, or couple of decades or so, but it's coming."

The slow-motion nature of the threat is a big part of the danger because it allows procrastination --- even for politicians who believe that sea level rise is a dire threat.

But Titley says the longer that significant action is delayed, the more likely the Pentagon will be forced to handle sea level rise as a crisis rather than a challenge.

"There's a saying: There are two things of little use to a Navy Naval aviator," he said. "One is altitude above you, and one is runway behind you. In my view we are putting more and more runway behind us."

Meaning sinking down really close to the end ...and hoping there's enough left to land on without crashing.