New report urges long-term view, greater margin of safety in planning for sea level rise

earth-newOn the eve of a Federal Emergency Management Agency meeting in Norfolk on flood risk management, a new report by the Sierra Club warns that sea level rise is accelerating and that greater precautions should be taken in planning for growth along the coast. Communities also need to take a long-term view to decide what existing development should be protected, and what should be moved as part of a strategic retreat.

The report confirms the VIMS findings that sea levels in 2040 are likely to be about one foot higher than today. However, given the uncertainty about how fast sea levels are rising due to climate change, planners should factor in an additional 6-inch safety margin, anticipating up to an 18-inch rise over the next 25 years. For buildings and infrastructure projects, planners should look out 50 or 100 years or face a very real risk of losing their investments prematurely. Sea levels could be more than 7 feet higher by the end of this time, the report shows.

“We need to be taking a hard look at where seas will rise in planning and building, whether it is a new house or a new road,” said Dr. Christopher Miller, author of the report. Dr. Miller recently retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he was a manager for the Climate Monitoring research grants program. “Sea level rise is worse in Virginia than in many places because the land is also sinking. But as time goes on, climate change will be more and more the driving factor. If you aren’t looking out a hundred years, you’re missing the full picture, and that can lead to costly mistakes.”

“Virginia has to get serious in planning for sea level rise,” said Skip Stiles, Executive Director of Wetlands Watch. “The price tag will be enormous. We need a dedicated source of funds, such as we would get by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. But we also have to spend money wisely. It is critical that we have this long-term perspective so we know what is worth putting money into, and what isn’t.”

“Denying climate change is like burying your head in the sand at the water’s edge at low tide,” said Zach Jarjoura, a Hampton Roads based organizer with the Sierra Club. “We can’t stop sea level rise, but we can slow it. We need to be aggressively pursuing reductions in carbon pollution through programs like the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.”

The report comes a day ahead of a meeting the Federal Emergency Management Agency is holding at Old Dominion University to take comment on a new Executive Order directing federal agencies to take account of flooding risks due to climate change. The Virginia General Assembly also passed a bill this year (SB 1443) requiring Hampton Roads localities to incorporate into their comprehensive plan reviews strategies to combat sea level rise and recurrent flooding.

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