Experts Say What Happens In The Arctic Affects Norfolk Flooding

Jul 26, 2018

Parts of Hampton Roads have been swamped by rain this week.

Regardless of rain or shine, many parts of southeast Virginia have a flooding problem, affecting communities and military readiness. The College of William & Mary Center for Climate and Security has been using small conferences to bring experts together to tackle the problem.

In June, Defense Secretary James Mattis expressed concern over melting ice in the Arctic. "Certainly America's gotta up its game in the Arctic. There's no doubt about that.  It's cited as an area of national concern with our national security strategy," Mattis told a conference in Williamsburg. "We have waterways that are open today that were not open five years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago."

The Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford arrives at Naval Station Norfolk and approaches its berth next to the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, left, and USS George Washington on April 14, 2017.
Credit (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni/U.S. Navy via AP)

As part of that strategy the Navy has has reestablished its 2nd Fleet command in Norfolk to oversee the Northern Atlantic. Competition from Russia and China in the Arctic will increase shipping traffic, fishing and target oil reserves.

Russia has already increased its military presence and China is planning for a “Polar Silk Road.” Sherri Goodman, former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security, calls climate change a “threat multiplier,” with ramifications for military readiness in places like Norfolk. "What happens in the Arctic, doesn't stay in the Arctic. And that's affecting communities like Norfolk and the whole Hampton Roads region," Goodman said.

Scientists say the melting sea ice, particularly the Greenland Ice Sheet, has a direct effect on sea-level rise here. Along the Atlantic Coast, the combined effects of sinking land and rising seas, give the Hampton Roads region one of the highest rates of relative sea level rise, about an inch every five years.

Andria McClellan is a Norfolk councilmeber, who sat with the staff of Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. She wants Congress to help fund Norfolk flood mitigation efforts. "We have sunny day flooding as we're going to have today in Norfolk at 7 p.m., on the street in which I live, there will be flooded roads and there will not be any rain in sight," McClellan noted.

For about $1.8 billion, the Army Corps of Engineers can mitigate tidal flooding in Norfolk with flood controls. The city and state would have to pay 35 percent of that. But that doesn't address the city's ancient stormwater system.

Andria McClellan asking a question of Joshua Saks, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Still, McClellan and Goodman see potential here. "In many ways this area is ground zero in the U.S. for resilience opportunities," Goodman said. "The opportunity to build a stronger community that anticipates what the risks of the next storm will be and acts now to develop that natural more resilient infrastructure."

Earlier this year, the state legislature created the position of Special Assistant for Resilience. Meantime, McClellan says Norfolk is already addressing a key factor to global warming – greenhouse gases – in a climate action plan.  "We are the first in the region to be doing this in creating a climate action plan. However, there have been several other cities around the Commonwealth who have already adopted theirs – from Alexandria and Arlington to Blacksburg and Roanoke. We're leading at the local level," McClellan said. "We don't see this happening at the national level, unfortunately, right now. So, it's really up to the cities, the towns and states to take the initiative."

It isn't just military bases and communities that's pushing Norfolk to take action. McClellan is worried about her city's credit rating. Moody's Investor Services is now assessing credit risks to a city or state being impacted by climate change.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.