US East Coast seen as an early casualty of rising seas
Climate change puts Atlantic coastline in cross hairs
The Associated Press, Aug. 20, 2012
WILMINGTON, Del. – Inch by inch along parts of the Atlantic Coast, global climate change is running in what scientists warn is geology's version of fast-forward — swamping and eroding beaches, wetlands and farm fields.
Shorelines from North Carolina to Boston are in a 'hotspot' for sea-level rise and will see water levels rise at double the rate of most places on the planet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The doubling is largely because of a geologic double whammy.
The treasured lifestyle of residents along the coasts of the Mid-Atlantic could significantly change by the time this year's high school graduates retire, scientists say.
The larger issue for taxpayers is where to spend money and energy attempting to hold back the ocean — and where to retreat and allow nature to take its course.
Humans have already changed Earth's atmosphere by releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide and similar heat-trapping gases from power plants, vehicles and other sources, scientists say. The resulting rise in air and sea-surface temperatures, along with melting glaciers and land ice, will push up sea levels globally by more than one-and-a-half feet by 2100.
Along the Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey coasts, sea levels could rise faster and higher — nearly 1.5 feet by 2050 and 3.5 to nearly 5 feet by the end of the century, according to Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and other federal and science agency reports.
That could swamp tens of thousands of homes and businesses along the coasts and jeopardize big chunks of land along Maryland's fragile Chesapeake Bay.
With a higher ocean, saltier water would push farther upstream, especially in summertime and drought years, making it harder to dilute for public consumption. Water supplies for communities along the Delaware River to Philadelphia could be threatened.
Delaware is "extremely vulnerable," said Collin P. O'Mara, secretary of Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
It may be worse along the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Tom Bradshaw, a lifelong Dorchester County resident, country store owner and county councilman, said, "Unfortunately, that statement is true."
"I grew up in the lower part of the county, and there are places under water now that were dry marshland when I was a kid," Bradshaw says. "In another 20 or 30 years, I think the landscape is going to change tremendously."
Like Maryland, Delaware has barrier beaches along the Atlantic that take a pounding. But the First State also faces a different challenge along Delaware Bay, where farm fields and homes are already being lost to encroaching brine water, and inland residents find themselves inside newly widened floodplains.
With a 3-foot rise, all that's left is a thin, fragile dune ridge between the Atlantic Ocean and the Inland bays, leaving little to protect thousands of homes and resort developments from the force of Atlantic Ocean waves and tidal surges that already are capable of swamping waterside communities.
Scientists say society must adapt to higher tides and storm surges, deeper heat waves and droughts, more intense storms and changes in long-term weather patterns.
An international army of scientists also warns that the world is just a few years away from a "tipping point" in carbon dioxide releases. Carbon dioxide pollution from power plants needs to peak at 32 billion tons annually, worldwide, by 2017 to avoid a more-than 3.6-degree increase in average world temperature — the threshold where weather, climate, ocean and sea-level changes are expected to have drastic human costs. An Energy Department report last week showed a promising drop in U.S. CO2 emissions, but it won't come close to heading off that tipping point.
"It would appear that we may have to adapt to at least 1 meter (slightly more than 3 feet) of sea-level rise by 2100 no matter what, and that means that state and local governments will need to work with the federal government to build sea walls and coastal defenses, engage in some degree of 'managed retreat,' " said Michael E. Mann, a Penn State University geophysicist who has been at the center of climate change research and controversy since the 1990s.
Delaware and Maryland officials recognize the danger inherent in sea level rise and have evolving plans for dealing with it.
In North Carolina, however, lawmakers approved a plan banning consideration of sea level rise based on climate change for development decisions.
"That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard," O'Mara said. "We're already seeing impacts. Every study that comes out shows that we can't wait" to take action.
There are many examples of communities, institutions and individuals struggling to hold back rising tides, or wondering what to do when high water reaches them. Government assistance is often required.
In Chincoteague, Va., home of the famous wild pony roundup, townspeople have asked four of the past 10 years that federal dollars be used to repair the public parking lot on the beach savaged by storms. Annual costs range from $200,000 to $700,000, contingent upon the extent of the damage.
Without the 961-space parking lot there is no tourism economy, they argue. Tourists won't schlep their beach umbrellas, coolers and kids from an inland park lot to a shuttle and make a 2-mile ride to the beach, as environmentalists have proposed.
Tourism has to a large degree replaced fishing, clamming and oyster harvesting as a way of life in Chincoteague, which is more dependent on summer beach goers to remain alive.
While debate over a long-term solution continued this spring, giant earth movers repaired the lot at federal taxpayers' expense.
At NASA's Wallops Island space facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore, federal officials extended a sea wall and pumped 3.2 million cubic yards of sand along the beach last year to protect the $1 billion space agency infrastructure from being washed away.
A little further south, officials are pondering what to do about submerged pilings that remain from former resort houses built on what was once high ground of an eroding Cedar Island.
To the northwest, along the Chesapeake Bay's Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Md., woods and marsh purchased by the federal government are disappearing under rising water, taking away critical habitat for waterfowl, the endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel and an active nesting area for bald eagles.
Since 1938 some 8,000 acres, 12 square miles, of marsh has been replaced by open water. That would be tantamount to wiping the map of a city the size of Salisbury, Md. — or like backing up water on the St. Jones River to submerge half the city of Dover.
Federal researchers expect entire islands to disappear in Chesapeake Bay, noting that in recent months a new channel was cut through Tangier Island off the coast of Virginia.
All this seems a bit overwrought to Rich Collins, a Delaware insurance agent and leader of the Positive Growth Alliance, a business-oriented lobbying group. Sea-level rise forecasts are "way overstated," Collins insists.
"I have real concerns, because there are many environmental programs that I believe are designed to drive people away from the water," said Collins, a member of the state's Sea-Level Rise Advisory Committee and a critic of past state attempts to factor future climate change into current land-use decisions.
Others say the evidence is unequivocal — and alarming.
In New Jersey, where the state's Coastal Zone Management Program has been working for years to help local governments develop plans for "resilience," veteran environmental scientist Donna Frizzera said that current state forecasts are far from worst-case estimates.
Maps and forecasts of future sea-level rise, offered as guides for long-term planning, only show viewers the calm-weather level of future high tides.
Not shown is the height of storm surges pushed up from higher starting points by the more-vicious storms climate researchers say will become more common.
"For some communities we showed them the current inundation and sea-level rise projections," Frizzera said. "Then we showed them the storm surge on top of the sea-level rise projects."