Skip to content

SEA LEVEL RISE Now is the time to protect and adapt, ODU professor says

Updated: April 11, 2014 - 2:16 pm

Posted: April 11, 2014

By Jared Council

For the past 100 years in Hampton Roads, Old Dominion University professor Hans-Peter Plag said in a presentation last week, the sea level has risen about 1.5 feet.

But because of several factors, that rate could grow as high as 6 feet per 100 years, and the local community has to decide its response to the forecast.

"We would not be living on top of the tidal range but in the tidal range," Plag said at ECOnference 2014, sponsored by the ODU Business Gateway and Inside Business.

"And every day, at high tide, the roads would be flooded if we don't do anything very rapidly to adapt to this."

Plag is co-director of ODU's Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative, which was established in 2010. He led off the full-day conference, held at the Holiday Inn Norfolk-Virginia Beach on Greenwich Road, and announced the launch this month of the Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute, or MARI, which aims to explore solutions to problems associated with climate change and rising sea levels.

More than a dozen other speakers at the event addressed topics in two tracks, green buildings and alternative energy/energy efficiency.

By the year 2050, according to scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Coastal Virginia is expected to see sea levels rise by 1.5 to 2 feet.

Last month, officials with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission voted to create a special committee aimed at developing policy responses to the issues, among other things.

And last week Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he plans to reactivate a climate change commission to advise him on courses of action, The Roanoke Times reported.

Speaking to nearly 100 people, Plag likened the earth to a patient who visits the doctor after feeling ill. He said climate change and sea level rise are the symptoms, and pointed to human activity over the past two centuries as the likely underlying cause.

The diagnosis, he said, is that humankind has left the period called the Holocene and moved into what many scientists are calling the Anthropocene. The Holocene is the roughly 11,000-year period in which human civilization formed, he said, and the Anthropocene is marked by humankind's influence on the planet.

"I like to phrase this as we have moved from the back of the bus where we could do whatever we want - we could play, we could have fun - and have moved into the driver's seat," he said. "We are determining where this planet is going. We are determining what the planet is going to look like in 100 years or 50 years."

The prognosis, at least for Coastal Virginia, is that the waters are rising. So Plag said the local community can protect, adapt or ignore.

His suggested treatment, he said, would be for municipalities to choose a sea-level-rise projection and tailor land use, building codes and protective measures accordingly.

He also said the residents may consider making room for the water and living on "fingers of high ground," or alternating segments of high and low ground that accommodate rising waters.

"Living where it's safe and working where it's needed, I think that's some of the big changes we need to make," Plag said.