Atlantic Surging, Virginia Sinking

climate change

Atlantic Surging, Virginia Sinking

Rising sea level in Norfolk threatens the town, the Navy, and a state in denial.

February 23, 2015

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This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of  The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.


Standing at the Elizabeth River looking at the Naval Shipyard and neighboring Portsmouth, the climate change carnage looming over Norfolk, Virginia, may not be immediately noticeable. The water is calm, and on this mild day in November, dedicated boaters cruise downstream. Nestled between the river, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean, Norfolk is paradise for anyone who loves living near the water.

But paradise comes with a price. The combination of sea level rise, tidal flooding, and subsidence—the sinking ground—has made Norfolk a prime example of what climate is going to do, and has already done, to our coastal cities. The city and surrounding region is on the front line in the battle against climate change, but opinions within city limits on just how bad the flooding is and what to do about it appear to be mixed.

The stakes are high in Norfolk, which is home to the headquarters of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. Ignoring the problem will prove costly and dangerous, but for some, tidal flooding and sea level rise are problems for a future generation. The more serious form of denial on climate change is not that of the science-deniers; it’s the everyday denial on the part of ordinary people, communities, and leaders who can’t or won’t acknowledge what is lapping at their feet, because the reality is so frightening and the required scale of change is so immense.

The Norfolk Naval Station: At the world's largest naval installation, the carriers will float, but the base could go under. 

In the 1970s, Norfolk averaged less than two flooding events per year. That number has since tripled. But even when the water isn’t making roads impassable, the signs of climate change are still there: the rusted base of a street sign, debris lines that form when the water carries litter onto the grass, salt patches where nothing grows, and a walkway that’s underwater so often that no one bothers to use it anymore.

Norfolk’s longtime mayor, Paul Fraim, is one of the first mayors to seriously consider the possibility of having residents abandon certain areas of their city to avoid the constant flooding. Climate change, he says, poses a threat to the city that “we can no longer afford to ignore.” But despite Fraim’s acknowledgment of the reality of rising water, denial in his city is widespread.


Since 1970, the sea level has risen eight inches in Norfolk. By 2030, scientists expect the sea to rise another six inches. The flooding that endangers Norfolk, says Dr. Hans-Peter Plag, director of the Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute (MARI) of Old Dominion University, is clearly the consequence of climate change. Global temperature increase is rapidly melting ice sheets in the Arctic, which leads to a rise in global sea level. Combine a rising sea with the natural tidal cycle and you get tides that move further inland, causing tidal flooding in a previously unseen way.

Sea level rise isn’t the only contributor to flooding in the Hampton Roads area. Coastal Virginia is also subsiding; the ground itself is sinking. The subsidence is a natural phenomenon, but add it to the rising sea level and the problem gets worse.

The fact that the region is sinking means that rain events—which have increased in intensity by 11 percent since 1948—also flood the roadways and disrupt daily life for residents, the military, and businesses alike. Nor’easters—storms with high wind and rain—have a habit of being slow-moving, and a large one can spell disaster for the region. Hurricanes and their associated storm surges also flood the city.

Climate scientists, city officials, and the military have come together at Plag’s institute, MARI, to map out a plan for how to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. The institute acknowledges the considerable uncertainty about exactly what is going to happen by planning for a variety of outcomes. “Scientifically, we cannot exclude the possibility that there will be a very rapid and large sea level rise this century,” says Plag.

MARI’s ultimate goal is to compile research to share with various sectors of the Norfolk community to figure out what to do about the frequent flooding of the city. But no one needs to wait 50 years to see what climate change will do to Norfolk: “We’re already in a situation where some areas are getting very difficult to live in because we have the frequent flooding,” says Plag.

What sets Norfolk apart from the other coastal cities is that it is home to the largest naval base in the world. Built in 1917, during World War I, Naval Station Norfolk boasts 75 ships, 134 aircraft, 14 piers, and 11 aircraft hangars. With almost 30,000 civilians employed at the naval shipyard, the U.S. Navy is the main economic driver in the region. The sea level rise will not only have an economic impact on Norfolk, it will imperil a major military installation.

Retired Rear Admiral David Titley, whose 32-year career as a naval officer included serving as the branch’s chief oceanographer, has been very outspoken on the issue. The Navy put Titley in charge of assessing the impact climate change will have on their branch of the military. As a meteorologist who has studied weather patterns for decades, he’s highly qualified. In a statement to the U.S. Senate submitted in July 2014, Titley stressed the need for immediate action on climate change. “The time for action is now,” Titley said. “Projected climate change may cause increased instability around the world; we are not prepared for the pace of climate change.”

Last October, the Pentagon released a report on climate change detailing the threats to national security and how the Department of Defense plans to respond. It argued that changes in climate will fuel disease outbreaks, political instability, and even terrorism. The report identified four primary climate change results that will directly affect military operations: rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and, of course, rising sea level.

For the Navy, anything that can diminish its ability to deploy its resources is considered a security concern. While the report said that climate change posed immediate threats to national security, the Navy’s public assurances strike a distinctly less ominous tone.

A Norfolk Naval Station parking lot during a hurricane.

In statements for public consumption, the Navy equivocates. “We feel as if this is going to be a mid-century problem for the Navy,” says Bob Freeman, the public information officer with the U.S. Navy’s climate change task force. Even so, the Navy is attempting to assess the risks to their coastal installations, but it’s not easily quantified. While climate scientists agree that sea level is rising, there are variations across regions and no exact level has been pinpointed. “The Navy has been struggling with this idea for about five years,” Freeman says. “How do we prepare for sea level rise when we have no way of predicting it?”

Compounding the problem of unpredictability, Freeman continues, is the lack of resources needed to assess military vulnerabilities. “We’re still under sequestration. We’ve got budget cuts, we’ve got all these geopolitical problems.” And those geopolitical issues are tapping into the Navy’s resources.

Officially, the Navy doesn’t think it’s time to batten down the hatches just yet. “I get cold calls from journalists who think we’re building dikes to keep out the sea, but we’re not there yet. We’ve got decades before we need to start thinking about that,” Freeman insists.

If the public needs to take climate change more seriously, for now the Navy won’t be sounding the alarm.


Some Norfolkers do feel a sense of urgency. On the morning of Veterans Day 2014, there’s a light rain in the Hampton Roads region—light enough that being without an umbrella isn’t a problem. But in front of the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, a large puddle has already begun to form—from just about an hour of light rain.

The church sits directly in front of what is called the Hague, a body of water that is connected to the Elizabeth River. High tide, or even rain alone, causes the roads leading to the church to flood until they become impassable. Recurrent flooding has even created a new shoreline; the frequency of salt water washing over the grass has caused the grass to stop growing. As you approach from the shoreline, salt-encrusted soil extends along the front of the property, then comes grass, and in the grass behind the new shoreline stands a sign: Church Property For Sale.

Brian Brennan is the director of religious education at the church. A tall man with a warm disposition, he’s very vocal about his opinion on climate change, tidal flooding, and what it all means for the Unitarians occupying a building constantly embattled by the rising seas.

Across the street from the church, Brennan gestures at the dirt and salt mix in front of the Hague. “Once upon a time, there was grass there,” he says. He doesn’t mean 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago, but five.

In 1973, the Unitarians purchased the building from the Presbyterians and have been here ever since. The church, like the nearby Chrysler Museum of Art, sits on top of an old riverbed; historic maps reveal that the neighborhood, Ghent, was actually built on what used to be part of the Elizabeth River. During severe rain the area essentially reverts back to a river. “Nature finds its way back,” Brennan says when back inside, watching the light but steady rain through the window of the minister’s office. 

Moderate rains can trigger nuisance-level flooding, but nor’easters cause the bigger problems. In November 2009, a severe nor’easter sent floodwaters into the church basement where the power station is located. The church was without power and heat for a month.

“That’s not the first time something like that happened,” Brennan says. “And I don’t think anybody sensible would say that it’s the last time it’s going to happen.” Quick and easy solutions are few and far between. The church can’t be lifted, and moving the power station would require a new building to house it. That would be almost as expensive as building a better-situated church.

The church has had a for sale sign on its front lawn since June 2014. The official reason for moving is space; the building simply isn’t big enough for all the congregation wants to accomplish. But the constant flooding from high tides and rain is what Brennan describes as “the exclamation point to a sentence.” An October nor’easter forced Brennan to ask members of the church to leave during an afternoon meeting. High tide was at 5:30 P.M., and by 2:00 water was already covering the road in front of the church and coming into the parking lot.

According to Brennan, the congregation sees the flooding as a nuisance. The church website links to a tidal schedule, so members of the congregation know if they’ll have to park their cars further away and splash through floodwaters to get to church for Sunday service or a meeting. They’ve become accustomed to water making access to the church a challenge and have accepted it as the norm.

The members of the church, however, love the location and rightly so. The building is beautiful; the Ghent neighborhood is dotted with rehabilitated Victorian homes and overlooks the Elizabeth River. It’s the hip and fashionable arts district of Norfolk. “To see the hardcore denial that goes on here makes me recognize how difficult the process is going to be everywhere else,” Brennan says.

Because scientists predict that sea level rise will continue, a realistic option for the church would be to take the building down so the land reverts to nature and turns back into wetlands. That isn’t an option for the thousands of homes currently in flood plains. “The simple, practical solution is to move,” Brennan says with a chuckle—he realizes how that plan isn’t exactly feasible either. What do you do with one million residents?


When Mary-Carson Stiff, of Wetlands Watch, wanted to purchase a home in Norfolk with her husband, she found that realtors were hesitant to talk about flooding histories and flood insurance. After all, two things that will make a potential buyer sour on a house are finding out that it floods constantly and that the flood insurance premium is hefty.

For homeowners in flood-prone areas, flood insurance is a must-have. But when the stakes are high in a city like Norfolk, flood insurance politics can get messy quickly.

Right now, flood insurance premiums for a home in a flood plain can be as high as $4,000 per year. Amendments to the National Flood Insurance Program will cause flood insurance premiums to increase by 18 percent in early 2015. Realtors throughout the community are worried because homes with such high premiums that are set to go even higher are going to have a hard time selling.

Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to find out flood insurance costs until the sale is closing. Worse yet, many of the homes in the flood plains don’t have insurance because they don’t have mortgages. These homes have usually been passed down within a family.

Despite all this, Stiff is still satisfied with her decision to buy her house; even though it is in a flood plain, when her neighborhood floods, her home stays dry. She doesn’t think that many residents are worried about buying homes—in Norfolk, it’s a given that homeowners need flood insurance.

But the future of the housing market in Norfolk remains in the balance. That homes in cities threatened by flooding have seen a rebound in the market indicates that “the real estate markets are NOT pricing in the very real risk—in some cases, inevitability—of sea level rise in these communities,” Dan Immergluck, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of City and Regional Planning, said in an email. “Just as in the financial crisis, they are assuming there will always be buyers willing to pay more for their property.” Buyers expect that they will be able to sell the homes in the short term or that they will sell them at a profit to the next buyer, who will also ignore the effects of climate change.

While some homeowners may not be too worried about floods, Mayor Fraim has been extremely vocal on the topic of climate change and tidal flooding in the city. However, when I reached out to him and the city council for comment, the city’s public relations officials seemed a bit hesitant to schedule an interview and in the end directed me to the city’s website. What happened to the mayor who seemed to be a leading voice for local action on climate change?

In the summer of 2014, Senator Tim Kaine hosted a forum with Virginia public officials to discuss the realities of climate change and next steps for mitigation. Fraim offered his usual talking points on climate change but also added some things he wasn’t pleased about.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Newly reclaimed wetlands where a park once stood in a flood-prone Norfolk neighborhood.

Apparently, the amount of press attention Norfolk garnered as a prime example of the dangers of climate change was beginning to annoy the mayor. He said he wanted people to be prepared, but he didn’t want alarmists scaring away businesses. “It’s not like we’re all out there buying canoes,” Fraim said at the forum.

The city is now opting for smaller steps to address problems, such as reminding residents through radio spots not to clog storm drains with leaves or grass clippings. Some residents have their doubts about city officials’ commitment to mitigation. “The water keeps coming and the city continues to do this,” Brennan says, covering his eyes and looking away. He’s particularly concerned that the city has decided to build a light rail line through a well-known flood-prone area.

Environmental groups have stepped in to supplement the city’s modest efforts. Wetlands Watch has created a smart phone app called Sea Level Rise. The app’s developers traverse the town during significant flooding events to map the areas that are underwater; constant mapping will eventually lead to firm knowledge of exactly where and when flooding occurs.

After all, a major rain event effectively shuts the whole city down. While children in other cities get snow days, children in Norfolk get flood days. Stiff of Wetlands Watch believes that crowdsourcing the information on flooding would do a lot of good and that the city could benefit from a system similar to Snow Emergency Routes in other cities. If such a system were implemented when a flood emergency is declared, residents would be able to quickly move their cars, reducing the number of motorists who get stuck in floodwaters. (Saltwater is also terrible for brakes.)

While the city hems and haws over what to do about climate change, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) is acting now. Director Mike Tidwell acknowledges that many locals may not accept “the avalanche of scientific evidence” on the man-made causes of climate change, but says that all Norfolkers have “an awareness that things have changed. They’ll tell you that that kind of flooding did not happen ten years ago and it’s getting worse.”

The real question is how to pay for the projects that will keep Norfolk viable. The city needs an estimated $1 billion to address all the problems caused by the rising sea. Where to get that money is a constant topic of debate in the region. CCAN’s proposal is outlined in the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, which will be introduced in the state legislature later this year.

The bill proposes that the state of Virginia conform to the EPA’s carbon rule by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which caps carbon pollution from power plants and requires companies to buy emissions permits at auctions. Joining RGGI will generate $209 million a year for the state by 2020; the Protection Act will require that half of that revenue be used for coastal protection.

“One thing that we say over and over again in Virginia is that there are two things that are not going to go away no matter how much people might wish,” says Tidwell. “Those things are sea level rise and the president’s carbon rule.” Though the bill will be presented to Virginia lawmakers, the likelihood of it being passed in a Republican-controlled chamber remains slim.

One would be hard-pressed to find someone in Norfolk who disagrees that the sea is rising and flooding the city on a near-regular basis. But for a region that is supposed to be leading the charge on what will be a disastrous situation in a few decades, the sense of urgency just isn’t there.