Essay | Virginia residents, you might consider getting a boat

A suburban street flooded with water.

A neighborhood street in Hampton, Virginia, following a flash flood in 2020. (Aileen Devlin/Virginia Sea Grant

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Natural Disasters

On Sept. 1, 2021, your phone goes off with a sound like an Amber Alert, but not quite the same frequency. You glance down to see that your home has been placed under a severe thunderstorm watch. That’s normal. Then, not even an hour later, your phone vibrates again alerting you to a flash flood warning. Strange. Another 30 minutes and you’re looking at a tornado warning. This is new. Moments later, your home state of Virginia declares a state of emergency. OK—what is going on?

Rising sea levels and flooding are growing problems in Virginia, and Hurricane Ida just showed us the devastating impacts. According to the National Climate Assessment (NCA), increasing temperatures in Virginia, sinking landforms, and changing ocean currents are causing sea levels to rise significantly higher than the global average. These extremely high levels have caused flooding all across the state. In my neighboring town of Norfolk, “sea level rise has led to a fourfold increase in the probability of exceeding NWS thresholds compared to the 1960s,” according to the NCA.

Virginia Beach, Alexandria, and Richmond are especially prone to flooding because they are coastal cities. In my hometown of Chantilly, Virginia, we had two floods within the last month. It feels like it’s becoming a trend that every week we’ll face another natural disaster. According to the National Climate Report by the National Centers for Environmental Information, some of the wettest locations this month included Virginia, with precipitation totals 150% to 200% more than normal. Virginia is becoming the new flood hotspot.  

The frequent road closures and risks to infrastructure, transportation and ecosystems are some of the immediate effects we’ve witnessed due to flooding, according to the NCA. The NCA said that The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) measured as much as “1 to 3 feet of local relative sea level rise in the past 100 years in low-lying areas of the Southeast.” This causes “critical levels” of high tides and daily risk to all areas of life, including to businesses and neighborhoods. I can remember fear consuming my body as I got ready to drive, get on a bus, or even metro, because of how dangerous the weather conditions were. I remember having to find alternate routes because roads were closed and streets were evacuated. One too many times I have heard a tree fall in my sleep, only to wake up and realize it’s actually on the road. Roaring winds are a default noise to my ears, though they make it sound like my house is on the verge of collapsing. It’s a normal day when I’m begging my windshield wipers to go faster to keep up with the torrential downpour.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), sea levels are forecasted to rise about 55 inches by the year 2100. To contextualize, a process that should have taken 400 years with natural levels of warming has now been accelerated to 79 years. According to the NOAA, sea levels are currently rising “about one-eighth of an inch per year.” Growing up an athlete, I remember waiting for the calls and emails announcing that after school activities were canceled due to inclement weather. By the year 2100, my grandkids may get that call nearly everyday. 

The NCA projects that this flooding will become more serious, disruptive, and costly as its frequency, depth, and inland extent grow with time. But not all hope is lost. While Norfolk is known for its floods, states that they have allocated over $1 billion of proposed projects to protect against flooding by 2035. Similarly, Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads have set aside money for stormwater projects and sewage systems respectively.

There are other steps we should be taking now to prevent more flooding in the future. Reducing carbon emissions would address the problem at the source, because fewer carbon emissions means less warming. Protecting our wetlands is another step we should be taking. These wetlands provide natural areas for the water to be stored. Maybe, if we take these steps and others—while taking climate change seriously—Virginians won’t have to purchase a boat in the near future just to get around town.

Editor’s note: Check back each day during COP26 for more pieces in Planet Forward’s Climate Hits Home series.

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climate change, Extreme weather, Hurricane, natural disasters, sea level, Virginia

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