Sea Rise and Storms on the Chesapeake Bay

Sea Rise and Storms on the Chesapeake Bay

Find out how the Chesapeake Bay is threatened by storm surges and sea level rise, and what communities are doing to combat it.


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Earth Science, Meteorology, Oceanography, Engineering, Geography, Physical Geography

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Chesapeake Bay is a beautiful and important body of water. It is partly in the American states of Maryland, and partly in Virginia. Sadly, Chesapeake Bay is in trouble. Over the next 80 years, it could rise by 0.6 to 1.2 (two to four feet).

Scientists with a group called CSSPAR have been studying the Chesapeake for years. They are worried by what they have found.

Chesapeake Bay is part of a bigger problem. Sea levels around the world are rising. This is happening because the world is getting hotter. Scientists call this global warming. As temperatures rise, polar ice is melting. Freshwater is pouring into the world's oceans.

Oceans used to rise 12.7 to 20.3 centimeters (five to eight inches) every 100 years. Now, they are rising much faster.

Land is Sinking, Water is Rising

Chesapeake Bay is facing an extra problem, though. Land beneath the bay is sinking. As the land sinks, the water level rises. As a result, the bay's water level is rising much faster than average.

What will happen if it continues to rise at the same speed? The bay would flood the land for miles around. Two million homes could be destroyed. Many people could be killed.

Not only people are in danger. Many kinds of birds, animals and fish could also lose their habitat.

Effects of Storms will Become Worse

A higher water level in the bay is causing stronger storm surges. A storm surge is a sudden rise in sea level. Such rises are caused by storms. They make flooding far worse.

Global warming is not just causing rising sea levels. It is also changing weather patterns. Storms are happening more often. They are getting bigger too.

CSSPAR compared a 1933 storm to a 2003 storm. The 2003 storm was called Isabel. The two storms hit the same coastal area with the same force. But the storm surge from Isabel was much higher. It was 2.4 meters (eight feet) above normal water levels.

What will happen if a storm like Isabel hits the Chesapeake 70 years from now? The sea will be 0.6 meters (two feet) higher by then.

The flooding would be worse than anything ever seen before.

Isabel caused an eight-foot-high flood in Alexandria, Virginia. Add another 0.6 meters (two feet) to the bay. The flood would then be three meters (10 feet) high. Highways would be underwater. Buildings would be destroyed. Many people would lose their lives.

Technology will Help People Stay Safe

Scientist Sean O'Connor sees some reason for hope, though. He believes new technologies will help reduce deaths when future storms hit. Weather satellites and GPS will show how strong a surge will be. They will show how long it will last. People will be able to get out of the way in time, O'Connor thinks.

Fast Fact

The Chesapeake's Living Shorelines
To help protect the Chesapeake region (in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States), average citizens should first educate themselves about the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay as a system, said Sean O'Connor, a National Geographic Society cartographer who has mapped sea-level rise on the Chesapeake.

O'Connor advocates cultivating natural environments along the coast called living shorelines. Erosion is controlled by placing rows of stone just off the shoreline, along which aquatic grasses are planted. Sand and mud are trapped naturally behind these "walls" of stone and grass. Shoreline is actually gained. Living shorelines have emerged as the preferred alternative to "hard" techniques such as retaining walls.

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Jeff Hunt
Kara West
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kim Rutledge
Chesapeake Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge: Public Awareness and Response (CSSPAR)
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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