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Editorial: Response to sea level rise is a matter of great consequence

Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report loaded with somber sea level rise projections for coastal communities.

By 2050, Virginia and other states along the Gulf and East Coasts are expected to experience a 1-foot jump, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. Existing emissions data also suggests there will be 2 feet of sea level rise by the turn of the 22nd century.

To accompany the concerning forecast, the NOAA has created an interactive “Sea Level Rise Viewer.” Type in “Norfolk” for example, and a pin appears on the map, showing a photo of the Lone Sailor statue at Wisconsin Square near the Elizabeth River. Users then can drag a slider tool to simulate the impact of up to 10 feet of sea level rise.

“For businesses along the coast, knowing what to expect and how to plan for the future is critical,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement. “These updated projections will help businesses, and the communities they support, understand risks and make smart investments in the years ahead.”

Raimondo is right about the need to prepare. But there’s no need to stare at a “Sea Level Rise Viewer” and debate what could happen in the decades to come. Virginia already has enough information to underscore the need for urgent action.

The commonwealth’s response to sea level rise is a matter of great consequence for several reasons. First, consider the demographics, as our coastal population is far from small. Per NOAA figures, of 8.3 million people who call Virginia home, 4.9 million (59%) live in shoreline communities. Compare that to neighboring North Carolina, which has 9.8 million residents, but only 1.2 million (12%) living along the coast.

Second, contemplate the economy. Virginia’s coastline is no small source of employment and revenue. NOAA data show roughly 2.3 million people are part of this workforce, earning $140 billion in annual wages and generating $344 billion in gross domestic product. Conversely, North Carolina’s coastal economy supports 436,000 employees, who collect $17 billion in yearly wages and produce $46 billion in GDP.

Third, examine the environmental history. Per the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Virginia has experienced more relative sea level rise than anywhere else on the Atlantic Coast: 14 inches since 1930. And just since 2010, both Virginia and North Carolina have endured 30 weather disasters where damages reached at least $1 billion.

Jobs are at stake. Property is at risk. Virginians’ lives depend on an adequate response from elected leaders and we have to spend more time focused on actionable solutions that make our communities more resilient.

Voters understand what’s going on. In November, Virginia Beach residents voted to approve a bond referendum for flood protection. The measure authorized the city to issue $567.5 million toward 21 infrastructure projects, and it passed with 73% support.

Scientists are aware of what’s going on. In February, Virginia Tech opened its new Coastal Collaborator in Hampton. The center’s goal is increasing capacity to address sea level rise and other environmental challenges.

Developed by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s Center for Coastal Studies in partnership with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center, the Coastal Collaborator’s research and problem-solving efforts will span not just Hampton Roads, but the state’s Eastern Shore, Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.

Within a short walk of Tech’s new facility are restaurants, sea life murals, retail spaces, apartments, and the Virginia Air & Space Science Center. These economic assets can benefit from research produced by this fresh endeavor to secure a better future.

Lawmakers know what’s going on, too. In recent days, they have debated legislation that affects how the commonwealth combats environmental challenges — most notably rollbacks of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Virginia Clean Economy Act. On this issue, the General Assembly cannot spend its time battling over campaign promises or party ideology. It must focus on taking bold steps that protect Virginia’s future.

And if RGGI, the VCEA and other bills really are not the way forward, propose fresh ideas that offer a more sustainable path. But don’t ignore the demographic, economic and environmental truth. Virginians didn’t need the latest NOAA warning to know sea level rise (and other climate-related issues) are matters of great consequence.

— Chris Gentilviso

Chris Gentilviso is Opinions co-editor. Contact him at:

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