Living with Higher Sea Levels

OK, folks, here’s the map you all wanted to see: What happens to Virginia’s Tidewater under a doomsday global warming scenario, a three-meter rise in sea levels? Answer: About 1/3 of of south Hampton Roads slips under the waves. (Click on map to view a larger, more legible image.)

Not shown on the map: When Pat Robertson dies and there’s no one left to avert the hurricanes through prayer… Hurricane storm surges swallow up even more.

The map is a stark reminder that, after New Orleans, Hampton Roads is the major metropolitan area in the United States most vulnerable to a direct hit by a hurricane.

(The map appears on page 17 of a presentation, “Impacts of Climate Change on Coastal Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay,” by James E. Bauer, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, to the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change.)

A couple of caveats: This graphic shows what will be covered at high tide under a full moon. And it assumes that sea levels rise three meters. The Governor’s Commission has stated previously that sea levels are expected to rise about three feet by the end of the century. On the other hand, combine a three-fee rise in sea levels with a six-foot hurricane storm surge (hurricane storm tides can raise water levels 15 feet or more), and you’ve got the scenario displayed in the map.

This, it strikes me, is the No. 1 issue that the Climate Change Commission needs to grapple with. If sea levels rise, as many fear they will, the impact will be catastrophic for billions of dollars of development in Hampton Roads. As a believer in free markets, I think people should be free to build where they want, no matter how short-sighted and stupid their decision. But I will get up in arms if, after their stupidity is made manifest, they come whining to the government for relief.

Three key points regarding public policy:

First, Virginia needs to ensure that insurance companies are allowed to charge flood insurance rates commensurate with the risks of building in flood-prone coastal areas. Further, if a hurricane hits and homeowners are underinsured, legislators should not rescue them from their folly by forcing insurance companies to pay for flood damage homeowners never insured for, as some politicians tried to do in Mississippi after hurricane Katrina. Virginia needs to send a message of unmistakable clarity: If you choose to live in coastal areas vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges, you’re on your own!

Question: Is anyone from the insurance industry scheduled to address the commission?

Second, Virginia and Hampton Roads municipalities need to consider very carefully where they are willing to build public infrastructure. While citizens should be free to make stupid, short-sighted decisions on their own nickel, the saner segment of the electorate should insist that governments take a longer-term view.

The Virginia Department of Transportation needs to review all of its plans for road and highway improvements in affected areas and ascertain the likelihood that they could be submerged by rising sea levels. If the roads are at risk, do not build them! Municipalities need to review plans for water/sewer lines, locally funded roads, and other public infrastructure. Developers need to be told: You can build there, but don’t expect us to pay for the infrastructure. You’re on your own.

Third, we learned from hurricane Katrina the critical importance of wetlands in buffering populated areas from storm surges. As part of this study, the Climate Change Commission needs to explore the condition of Virginia wetlands and what, as a practical matter, can be done to preserve them.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


  1. Bookstore Piet Avatar
    Bookstore Piet

    Do they have an impact map on how it will impact us upstream in Richmond? Rising sea levels can effect rivers for many miles up stream as the drainage of the waterway slows. I’ve seen some maps that basically swallow the Bottom, although I don’t know if they take the flood wall into account (was it built to be able to be closed permanently?) and probably assume the unlikely event of the Greenland Icecap falling into the sea. This link can take you down to street level if you care to map out whether you have purchased riverfront property or not…

  2. Groveton Avatar

    Floods and hurricanes are bad but a drought might be the first of the horses of doom to arrive in Virginia. The following article describing the great Virginia drought of 1930 is very interesting.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “If the roads are at risk, do not build them! Municipalities need to review plans for water/sewer lines, locally funded roads, and other public infrastructure.”

    The problem is .. what do you do with the existing infrastructure?

    Do you abandon the CBBT or the HRT if they will likely go under … under a storm surge scenario?

    What I would realistically expect is that they’d do what they did with New Orleans… or the Netherlands… or on a smaller scale… in Richmond with their Flood Wall.

    and make no mistake … those dollars are not local dollars… those dollars come from the folks in Kansas….and Ohio, etc…

    and it works like it works on the Mississippi. One group of politically connected get their levee and the folks across the river and/or downstream.. the the increase flood “bonus”.

    and the we’ll have the same group of folks who poo poo climate change and rising seas.. who will up until the time their own home gets destroyed will be opposed to proactive policies .. to prepare ahead as opposed to reacting after-the-fact.

    The folks who ultimately might force a sane policy approach are the insurance companies.. if they are left alone and not forced to insure stuff that is not insurable.

    But like the Federal Flood Program… we get floodwalls when the insurance companies say “no insurance”.

    Nags Head.. and places like it will shrivel up and revert to bare barrier islands.. if the insurance companies are left to make the decisions.

    But the banks that own the mortgages .. you can bet.. are going to be donating large sums of money to the Virginia GA and Congress to get “redress”.. you can literally bet the bank on this…

    Bottom Line – the chances of a real proactive policy that draws real lines in the sand (pun intended) is close to the proverbial snowball…

    We are.. one inch .. away from extending the current flood subsidy program.. to deal with the rising seas…

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    If they come whining for relief at the end of the century, it’s not my problem.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Think of all the new wetlands we’ll get!

  6. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Hampton Roads has never had a direct hit by a hurricane, thanks to our neighbors in NC. By the time it gets here, the storms have had time to start breaking up.

    Now, if we get all this sea level rise you say, then there wouldn’t be any barriers to shield us from the storms. Then again, it wouldn’t matter because there wouldn’t be any ports, air bases, or naval stations that make up the bulk of this area’s economy.

  7. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Let the market work. Don’t insure banks that count flood plane mortgages as assets.

  8. Groveton Avatar

    Jim W. –

    “Let the market work. Don’t insure banks that count flood plane mortgages as assets.”.

    Where does it end?

    1. California is on a fault line. Should we insure banks that count California mortgages as assets?

    2. South Florida is in a hurricane zone. Should we insure banks that count south Florida mortgages as assets?

    3. Many parts of the United States are dry and prone to wildfires. Should they be excluded from receiving insured mortgages?

    4. Less educated people are more likely to be murdered. Should we deny life insurance unless you have a college degree?

    I actually agree with your point about flood plains and would add “at risk” coastal real estate. I just don’t know why I agree. I think it may be more to do with news stories than statistics. There must be some way to assess relative risk and draw a line. At what point do the odds of disaster go from “stupid idea to start with” to “reasonable risk sharing”?

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Groveton, You’ve hit upon a very important point. Some locations bear higher risks of natural disaster than others. It makes sense to not build there. If people choose to anyway, it certainly does NOT make sense for government to step in an ameliorate the resulting higher insurance rates. By doing so, it creates moral hazard and encourages people to do the unwise thing.

    If *should* cost more to insure buildings constructed in floodplains. It *should* cost more to insure buildings in hurricane alleys. It *should* cost more to build on tectonic fault lines. It *should* cost more to build in areas vulnerable to raging brush fires. This is a very big country. It’s not as if there is a such a shortage of space that people can’t build anywhere else.

    Subsidizing such building decisions is madness. We saw how much it cost us in Hurricane Katrina — tens of billions of dollars. Why replicate that experience?

  10. Groveton Avatar

    Do we know the relative differences in danger? Are wildfires more dangerous than being in the hurricane zone, for example. I guess the insurance companies must know this.

Leave a Reply