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Rising tide in Norfolk, Va.

When the presidential candidates talk about the long-term economic security of the US, they often talk about the national debt, the viability of Medicare and Social Security, and the rise of China.

But there’s another issue that could have major implications for the nation’s economy, and it’s barely mentioned at all:  the soaring costs America might face in generations to come from climate change. More specifically, the very damaging and very costly effects of sea level rise.

According to recent research put out by Climate Central, close to four million Americans now live in coastal communities that could see increased flooding caused by sea-level rise. The kind of flooding that was once considered extremely rare could happen more and more often, with devastating economic consequences.

The city of Norfolk, Va., is getting an early look at what sea-level rise means for a big coastal community. The city is experiencing sea-level rise earlier than most because not only are the seas around the city going up, but much of the land beneath Norfolk is going down. This one-two punch means the city is seeing today the kind of flooding that many cities could experience down the road if the scientific projections of sea-level rise play out.

We went to Norfolk recently and talked with Mayor Paul Fraim about how he’s grappling with the flooding that’s occurring more and more often in his city. In what may be a first for an American mayor, Fraim tells Need to Know that if sea-level rise continues, some parts of his city may have to be abandoned to the rising tide. Here’s our report:

A bit of additional background:  sea-levels globally have gone up about 5-8 inches over the last century — a side-effect, most scientists say, of our heavy use of fossil-fuels like coal, oil and gas.  Burning those fuels warms the planet, and warmer ocean water expands, causing the seas and oceans to rise.  The Federal government projects that sea-levels will rise an additional foot or two in coming decades.  If the planet continues to warm, the world’s ice sheets could continue to melt, releasing more of their water into the seas, which could drive sea levels up much further.

Some climate change skeptics argue that the models used to predict future rise are problematic and can’t be trusted. They argue that it’s foolish for cities and towns across the country to spend millions of dollars preparing for something that may never arrive.

There’s one area in the discussion of sea-level rise where there’s a growing consensus: a growing number of critics sat that the U.S. needs to rethink the policies – like subsidized Federal flood insurance – that they say encourage people to build in areas that will keep flooding over and over again.  (The private insurance industry got out of writing flood policies in risky areas many years ago, and now the Federal government is currently the biggest backstop for losses in flood-prone areas.)

Environmental groups and coastal scientists have argued for years that the continued development along the U.S. coast is made easier by this subsidized insurance, and that this policy needs to be overhauled. According to The New York Times, now even some prominent climate change skeptics, like Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, have joined that chorus. Ebell told the Times, “If people want to build an expensive beach house on the Florida or Carolina coast, they should take their own risk and pay for their own insurance.”

A new, bipartisan coalition of groups has formed around this issue as well – it’s called Smarter-Safer, and they’re urging Congress to reform the Federal flood insurance program.

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  • LJB

    I am sorry to see this program getting re-aired.  The basic premise (that a rising ocean is causing this problem) is patently refuted by the program’s own disclosure at the outset that the LAND IS SUBSIDING (meaning, that the land is sinking ! ).    

    If Norfolk is supposedly experiencing issues with dramatically rising sea levels, then why pray tell are not other communities up and down the East Coast experiencing similar issues ?  Sea level is not different in Norfolk, Virginia than in Washington D.C., or Baltimore, or New York City — and yet this program would have us believe that is the case. 

    This is a sad day for PBS and supposed documentary journalism.  This program is doing a disservice to climate science by passing off flooding in a coastal area where the land is subsiding as some form of alarmist “evidence” of a rising sea level from climate change :(

  • gebby

    On long island sea levels have risen 10 inches.  Everyone on the canal in Massapequa has had to raise their docks.  Docks that use to be 10 inches above were again at sea level.  Get rid of your skepticism.  Republicans use to believe in Global warming.  They invented cap and trade. John McCain ( from Arizona) voted for cap and trade 3 years ago.  The belief in AGW should not but it does fall along political party lines.  It seems republican voters will believe whatever they are told.  Believe it today, Skeptic tomorrow.  Amazing.

  • Anonymous

    A ten year peer reviewed study using grace satellites confirms that ice melt in Greenland and the Antarctic and the Himalayas, has been exaggerated by climate models and that ice melt contribution to sea level rise is far less than predicted over that time period. The tide gauges show no acceleration in the long term sea level rise. It is simple enough to look at NOAA tide guage data check the facts and understand that land subsidence is the problem. Climate Central is an activist organization and not an independent source of science. We see this time and time again with media under reporting Polar Bear population and penguin population and trying to claim global warming is killing them, only to learn later that Polar bears are fine and penguins are also fine. Climate Central’s report is not peer reviewed (I read it) and it is disappointing that PBS would mislead the public it is supposed to serve. Shame on PBS for promoting propaganda without offering an independent perspective. In this case their are many sea level expert scientists and or geologists that would disagree with much of Climate Central’s report.

  • Earle Mitchell

    One can only hope that VA’s governor and the legislative body  (mostly Republican) sees this and takes heed.  For some strange resason the Republicans are mostly climate deniers. 

  • Earle Mitchell

    One can only hope that VA’s governor and the legislative body  (mostly Republican) sees this and takes heed.  For some strange resason the Republicans are mostly climate deniers. 

  • gebby

    “A ten year peer reviewed study” Yea by whom?   If you are going to make such grand statements please use a link to the source. 

  • Harold Johnson

    Here’s what NOAA has to say about sea-level rise. It’s everywhere, and worse in places where the land is also subsiding — such as Norfolk, and the Mississippi delta.

  • Skipstiles

     ABSOLUTE sea level is the same globally, (although the “slosh” and currents in the oceans makes sea level rise different around the globe – make sense?  Sort of like my kid sloshing the water around in the tub – when he steps out the average water level is apparent.)  RELATIVE sea level is different everywhere because of what the land is doing.  In Norfolk, 8 inches of sea level rise over the last century is combined with about 8 inches of land falling to give the RELATIVE sea level rise rate that is the highest measured rate on the East Coast.  In the Pacific NW, the RELATIVE sea level is falling because the land is rising faster than 8 inches a century.

    But in the end, why we are getting wet is immaterial, if the long-term trend shows us getting wetter.  It means we’ll have to take steps like Mayor Fraim outlined on the show.

  • Jethro Bodine

    So you are still flogging this misinformation? Norfolk’s problems are 100 percent due to land subsidence.

  • Alexander Cardosa

    Sorry to see people posting made up information without any backing. 

    As for the Government subsidizing insurance coverage for those who want to build in flood prone areas, I am all for stoping that. Want to live in flood prone area then pay for it out of pocket or take your chance. I like what they did in New Orleans areas where flooding will happen again are now off limits for building or at least until that policy changes. We need the Feds to step in and put their collective foot down. 

  • Anonymous

    damit, Jethro!  the Navy is wrong again?  those clowns should just pack it in, and let geniuses like you take the helm.  that way, we could accelerate our acceleration of climate change and win the race to the bottom!  Yay!

  • Grumpyoldman2

    Sea level has not risen 5-8″ in the last 100 years where I live. Possibly due to an upwards sea surface grade to Norfolk Va. But I’m only 71. What is there about people who can’t simply accept a warning that something could or might happen, accept or ignore the warning and design for that? There is too much ecotard legislation now.