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 located in the U.S states of Maryland and Virginia. Over the next 80 years, it could rise by as much as 1.2 meters (four feet). This alarming news comes from a group called CSSPAR. Scientists working for CSSPAR have been studying the Chesapeake for years.

Sea levels around the world are rising because of the steady rise in average temperatures. This warming trend is known as global warming. It is mostly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, like coal and oil. As temperatures rise, polar ice is melting and pouring into the world's oceans.

Historically, oceans have risen about 12.7 to 20.3 centimeters (five to eight inches) every 100 years. They are now rising much more quickly.

Land is Sinking, Water is Rising

The Chesapeake Bay's water level is rising even faster than average, however. This is because the land beneath the bay is sinking. As the land sinks, the water in the bay rises. About half of the Chesapeake region's sea-level rise is caused by land sinking.

Much of the land in the Chesapeake region already lies very near sea level. For that reason, even a small rise would have a major effect.

If the bay's water level continues to rise at the same speed, the Chesapeake region will face major dangers. The bay would flood the land for miles around. It would destroy huge stretches of marshland. Almost two million homes would be destroyed by the year 2100.

Around 18 million people live in the Chesapeake region. The U.S. capital, Washington, D.C., is there.

Major cities like Baltimore will be flooded as the sea moves inland. In many low-lying areas, farms and homes will have to be relocated. Roads, bridges and buildings will have to be taken down and rebuilt elsewhere. All of this will cost an enormous amount of money.

Not only people are in danger. Sea-level rise will destroy coastal wetlands that are home to many kinds of birds, fishshellfish and plants.

Effects of Storms will Become Worse

A higher water level in the bay means stronger storm surges. A storm surge is a sudden rise in sea level caused by a storm. In turn, storm surges cause higher floodwaters.

Global warming is not just causing a rise in sea levels. It is also changing weather patterns. The result is bigger storms, and these storms are happening more often.

Bigger storm surges are already hitting the Chesapeake. CSSPAR compared a 1933 storm to a 2003 storm, Hurricane Isabel. The storms hit the same coastal area with equal force. However, the storm surge from Isabel was higher than the one in 1933.

Hurricane Isabel's surge was measured at 2.4 meters (eight feet) above normal water levels. The deadly storm ripped apart buildings and wetlands. It caused millions of dollars in damage.

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

CSSPAR says flooding would be worse than anything ever seen before. For example, Isabel caused an 8-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. Flood levels that high would cause terrible damage. Highways would be underwater and countless buildings would be destroyed. Many people might lose their lives.

Technology will Help People Stay Safe

Scientist Sean O'Connor does see some reason for hope, though. He believes improved technology will reduce human deaths when future storms hit. Weather satellites and GPS will help people understand how strong a surge will be and how long it will last. With improved technology, O'Connor believes people would be able to get out of the way in time.

Of course, even if O'Connor is right, there would still be many other terrible problems to deal with. Buildings, bridges and roads would still be destroyed and wetlands would still be damaged.

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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