The impact of climate change is visible everywhere across the US, and the state of Virginia is not immune. From the Chesapeake Bay to the Appalachian Mountains, climate change is having a strong effect across the state.

The changes in the weather have altered the life cycle for flora and fauna in the region. Plants are blooming too early, and insects are struggling to adapt. There’s also been an increase in the growth of bacteria which thrives in warmer temperatures.

Today, more than 160,000 people living in Virginia are vulnerable to extreme heat. Around 260,000 people are living in areas at an elevated risk of inland flooding.

Virginia Beach has one of the fastest rates of sea-level rising on the East Coast. Apart from the rising water levels, the land is sinking as well. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in the worst-case scenario, Virginia Beach could see up to 12 feet of sea-level rise by 2100. Though this scenario has a very low chance of occurring, it is still worth a mention.

All these suggest a growing need to take action and mitigate the impacts of climate change across the state. Fortunately, the state is already taking action.

Virginians’ Willingness to Adjust Lifestyles to Combat Climate Change

85% of Virginia residents believe that climate change is taking place, and 67% of the population believes that humans are responsible.

It is not surprising, therefore, that 60% of the residents indicated a willingness to adjust their lifestyles and help to slow or reverse the impacts of global warming. The public’s disposition towards climate change gives the local government a foundation to stand on in this race against time.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act

In March 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act. The landmark legislation mandates the state’s biggest utilities to deliver electricity from 100% renewable sources by 2045. It also created a timeline for closing old fossil-fuel plants and mandated gains in energy efficiency.

The new Act is expected to boost the wind and solar industries in Virginia, creating new jobs and lifting the economy.

Small Business Contest to Find Sea-level Resilience Projects

In 2019, Governor Ralph Northam launched the inaugural RISE Coastal Community Resilience Challenge. The contest was designed to encourage innovative projects that can help the region to fight rising sea-levels. The winners of the inaugural edition received between $160,000 and $310,000 to build solutions that will help coastal communities in the state to adapt to the threats of climate change.

Some of the solutions that were borne out of that contest include an academy that will teach local building contractors how to raise buildings, a business that will build oyster reefs along the shorelines, as well as a company that will harvest energy from the traffic on Hampton roads. The 2020 edition of the challenge will give out $2 million in funding to the winners of the contest.

Fighting Back Against Climate Change Rollbacks

Virginia has joined other states in the country to fight the rollback of restrictions on coal-burning and power plants in general.  The August 2019 lawsuit points at how the recent changes are sabotaging efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also gives the EPA an opportunity to abandon one of its main duties—fighting pollution.

In another attempt to fight back against the rollbacks in environmental protection and flood risk management by the Trump administration, the state government announced a strict new mandate in November 2019, designed to drive state-owned properties away from flood-prone areas. The law was designed to protect state buildings from flooding and also ensure that taxpayers’ money isn’t going into these projects.

These actions have demonstrated that the state government is not willing to allow federal rhetoric and actions to influence its fight against climate change.

A Small Town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore Confronts the Rising Seas

The state government’s climate-change-related actions have spread to the local level as small towns are not sitting idle in the fight. The small town of Saxis, like other communities around the Chesapeake Bay, is looking for ways to combat the flooding and erosion affecting the area due to climate change.

Experts in the area are aggressively looking for new ways to combat the situation because if sea-levels continue to grow at one and a half foot every century, the town, with its highest land only 8 feet above sea level, could disappear in just a few centuries.

Two of the solutions being used by the community today are dozens of artificial reef made of concrete and oyster shells, and a pile of concrete and brick stairs foundation on the shorelines. This is the approach they have taken while waiting for funding for more expensive solutions that will help the town to become more resilient to climate change.

In the Chesapeake Bay, a Climate Change Experiment

Chesapeake Bay is an estuary lying inland from the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by the states of Maryland and Virginia, the largest such body in the US. More than 150 rivers and streams flow into the Bay's 64,299 square miles (166,534 km2) drainage basin, which covers parts of six states (New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia) and Washington, D.C.

In 1987, scientists began a climate change experiment in the Chesapeake Bay designed to find out how global warming can affect wetlands. A 2019 review of the results found out that elevated CO2 in the atmosphere caused plants in the marsh to become shorter and denser. The research also showed that marshlands can also help to capture sediments and slow down floodwater.

However, the results also show that the rising sea-level is a big threat to the future of the wetland as the grasses are disappearing as the levels continue to rise.

NASA Erosion Fight on Wallops Island

An aerial view of the Wallops Island launch facilities taken by the Wallops Incident Response Team Oct. 29 following the failed launch attempt of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket Oct. 28. Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach

NASA’s Wallops Island is sitting on an erosion hotbed. The $1.2 billion flight bed was built on a barrier island. One of the remedies the Army Corps of Engineers settled on to combat the situation involves installing mine sand and breakwaters from the northern beach. The project will involve 60,000 dump truck loads of sands designed to replenish nearly 4 miles of lost beach.

However, as sea-levels continue to rise, the replenishing work could be undone in five to seven years.

Using Tidewatch, a Flood-predicting Tool

A screenshot of the VIMS Tidewatch Network. Tidewatch is a system developed by VIMS emeritus professor John Boon that measures the difference between predicted tides and observed water levels at locations around the Chesapeake Bay.

Residents of the Chesapeake Bay have had to live with climate-change-induced recurrent flooding which occurs as a result of seasonal high tides and extreme wind events which have become more frequent. In 2019, however, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science launched a tool that can help people in the area to prepare for a flood ahead of time.

The tool, named Tidewatch MapViewer, is one of the solutions on the ADAPTVA website designed to help the region’s climate adaptation efforts. It is based on the NOAA’s tide gauges. Scientists are also working on creating a system that can help incorporate the Tidewatch Map Viewer into a GPS system so that individuals can easily find alternative routes when roads are flooded.

Forests as a Solution to Flooding Problems

The city of Virginia Beach is one of the hardest hit in the state when it comes to frequent severe flooding events. In 2018, the city announced a study into how forests can play a role in the management of floods and stormwater. The two-part project cost an estimated $25,000.

The first phase of the project focused on measuring how existing forests reduce flooding, taking into consideration tree density, leaf area, and soil composition. The data will help the city to know for certain that forests play a role in storing water and limiting flooding.

The second phase of the project focused on identifying specific woodlands for conservation, and areas that will benefit the most from reforestations. The most successful sites will receive the bulk of the resources designed for the restoration project.

Conclusion

The state of Virginia is facing the impacts of climate change like the rest of the US and the world. However, Virginians and the most recent governments have demonstrated a willingness to do something about slowing down the effects of climate change today, and reducing the potential damages it will bring in the future.

However, for sustained results, more action is required. Like the scientists at the Chesapeake Bay marsh experiment mentioned, the only real solution is to cut greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the rate of sea-level rise. While all the efforts across the state are laudable, far too many of them are tilted towards helping people to deal with the impact of climate change instead of preventing future climate change disasters.

Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.