News Column

Report: Rising sea levels threaten Virginia landmarks

May 19, 2014

By Diane Tennant, The Virginian-Pilot



May 20--Four Virginia landmarks are among the 30 nationwide threatened by climate change-related weather conditions, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The report lists sea level rise, higher temperatures, wildfires and heavy rainfall as threats to Jamestown Island, Fort Monroe and NASA'sLangley Research Center and Wallops Flight Facility.

It calls for the reduction of carbon emissions, as well as funding for President Barack Obama's proposed Climate Resilience Fund, which if passed would help businesses and towns adapt and prepare for climate change.

"Virginia is home to some of the historic sites that will be the hardest hit by sea level rise," the report's co-author, Adam Markham, said in a news release. "It is a tragic loss for the nation that most of Jamestown is likely to be submerged by rising seas and Fort Monroe, which played a crucial role in the fall of slavery, will likely become an island unto itself within several generations."

Other climate-change reports have focused on global impacts, national impacts and national parks but not historic landmarks. It is not intended to be all-inclusive, said press secretary Lisa Nurnberger.

"We identify the big sites that people know about and care about and visit on their vacations," she said.

At Jamestown, where colonists established the first permanent English settlement in the New World more than 400 years ago, the National Park Service is considering excavating every artifact it can find to avoid losing them. That's a change from current practice, which leaves some in the ground in anticipation of better study and preservation techniques in the future.

Molly Mitchell of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who co-authored a report on sea level rise for the 2013 General Assembly, said projections estimate an increase of 1 to 3 feet in the next 50 years.

"Jamestown Island is mostly less than 3 feet of elevation," she said. "If the high projection is correct, then in 50 years, it would be predominantly under water."

Levees would do nothing to help, she added. "The water's actually coming up through the ground as well," Mitchell said. "It's a very spongy sort of ground. Just building a levee around it won't keep the water out."

Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, where the nation's first slaves arrived and where, during the Civil War, runaway slaves were protected, was flooded by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. In 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers started work on gates to prevent water from entering the moated fort through storm drain outfalls.

The fort's walls are high, Mitchell said, but the roads leading to it are low and near the water. "It's at risk of being an historic site that you can't access anymore," she said.

The Union's report said six NASA coastal facilities were in danger, including Langley Research Center in Hampton and Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore.

"There is about a billion dollars worth of federal, state and commercial investments on Wallops Island," said NASA'sCaroline Massey, the site's assistant director of management operations.

After Hurricane Irene closed the center for a couple of weeks and left millions of dollars in damage, officials built a seawall and added sand, both of which protected the site against Hurricane Sandy, she said.

"We're one of the nation's only four space launch facilities," Massey said. "We've been concerned about sea level rise and its impacts for at least 10 or 15 years."

Langley was closed for a week by flooding from Hurricane Irene, said Russell De Young, the center's representative on NASA's Climate Change Adaptation Science Team.

Langley, which according to De Young is only 6 to 10 feet above sea level, is in the midst of a construction project called New Town, which replaces outdated buildings and research facilities with energy-efficient construction, located on the highest ground on the campus.

"It's the oldest NASA center," De Young said. "It was formed in about 1917, so it has a lot of history in terms of the initial space program. The first astronauts trained here.

"The vast majority of science is telling us that we're going into a very different environment in the future and we need to adapt to it, but we also need to mitigate," he added. "We're going to have a very different climate in the future."

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(c)2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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