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Forum Participants Get Early Look at Sea Level Rise Risk Assessment

atkinson-sea-level-rise-forumODU's Larry Atkinson (left) with visiting presenters Kelly Burks-Copes and Edmond Rosso.

A forum at Old Dominion University on Tuesday gave 35 planners and engineers with the military, local governments and academic institutions an early look at the results of a $1.8 million study the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done to predict how sea level rise could affect readiness at the Norfolk Naval Station.

The study's principal investigators said their models suggest mounting operational difficulties at the base even with modest sea level rise. They identified a "tipping point" somewhere between 0.5 and 1 meter of local sea level rise at which the base could be expected to be crippled for a significant period of time by a major storm.

Although the team of 22 scientists and engineers who conducted the study were asked to focus just "within the fences" of the naval station, the team leaders told the forum audience that their models are expected to be useful to other military installations in the region and to local governments.

"I think the tipping-point impact concept is going to be very useful to all of us," said Larry Atkinson, the ODU Slover Professor of Oceanography who directs the university's Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative (CCSLRI). The CCSLRI, the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission and the Wetlands Watch environmental conservation group sponsored the forum.

Added Skip Stiles, the executive director of Wetlands Watch, "the Army engineers have done some heavy lifting for the region" by conducting the study. The more than 300-page document and accompanying computer models are projected to be released to the public next spring (a separate collection of results will be classified) and will be titled "Quantifying Risks of Climate Change and Sea Level Rise to Naval Station Norfolk."

Kelly Burks-Copes, an ecologist in the Environmental Laboratory of the Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss., is the lead author of the study and was the main presenter at Tuesday's forum. Also present was her boss, Edmond Russo, who is a co-author of the study and the chief of the Ecosystem Evaluation and Engineering Division of the Environmental Lab.

The researchers found the task to be daunting, Burks-Copes said, because of the complexity of their mission. It involved determining not only how much water would flow into the base under a variety of climate change and storm conditions, but also how that water would affect operations at the base dependent upon electrical and steam power, water and sewer systems and other infrastructure. A major focus of the study was a set of three piers at the station where aircraft carriers can tie up.

"The Navy can't move away from the coast," she said. "The idea is to help them plan and adapt. We hope to give a leg up to the station's master plan team."

Burks-Copes explained that the researchers looked at sea level rise scenarios of 0.5 meter, 1 meter, 1.5 meters and 2 meters over the current century. Scientific estimates of the ocean's rise by 2100 have generally been within these parameters.

The sea level rise factor is considered in the report to be a "threat multiplier," she said, and the models and simulations she shared bore this out. When computers crunched the numbers of 1-meter or more sea level rise together with the realities of a 50-year or 100-year storm impacting the Naval Station, the results were much more devastating than from the storms alone. Within the storm factors, of course, are the high tides that can enhance storm surges.

The researchers studied where the water would enter the base, where it would collect and how it might leave. They even took a comprehensive look at the aquifer under the base, finding that the combination of sea level rise and a storm surge could mostly fill the aquifer, making it unlikely that floodwaters would seep into the ground.

In addition to the big picture over decades, the researchers considered incremental sea level rise that the region might expect in the short term, combined with the effects of storms the region can expect to sustain every year, as well as every 10 years. While infrastructure/operation damage under these lesser conditions would not cripple the naval station, the heightened flooding is likely to present new challenges, they said. The forum participants from Hampton Roads seemed to agree that the study's models and simulations - enabling both short-term and long-term predictions - would be invaluable to municipal governments trying to decide how to deal with climate change and sea level rise.

"We're very interested in collaborating, in sharing this information," Burks-Copes told the forum. "If we don't, the study could die on the shelf."

The Naval Station study is one of four sea-level-rise risk assessments for security operations that the federal government ordered in 2008. One of the others looks at conditions in San Diego and two more focus on the Gulf of Mexico.

ODU launched its CCSLRI in 2010 with President John Broderick's challenge to "identify the multifaceted impact climate change and rising sea levels will have on our region ... and pull together the university and region's foremost experts to find solutions to the anticipated effects on our economy, housing, ports and infrastructure."

Measurements from Sewells Point on the lower Chesapeake Bay since 1927 show that the sea level has been rising about 1.7 inches per decade, and climate scientists say it is likely the rate will increase in the decades to come. Seas are rising because the water is warming (and expanding), land ice is melting, and, locally, the land is sinking. ODU's initiative has identified 60 faculty members at the university with expertise that can be put to use in formulating this response. Many of these come from fields such as oceanography, marine science, environmental health, botany and coastal engineering in which ODU has a rich history of fundamental research related to climate change. But CCSLRI has also engaged faculty members in arts and letters, business and education.

The goal of CCSLRI is to establish ODU as a leader in coastal urban adaptation to sea level rise and climate change.