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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By the end of this century, the Chesapeake could rise an additional 1.8 to 2.4 meters (two to four feet), according to moderate estimates reported by an organization called CSSPAR (pronounced "see-spar"), which stands for Chesapeake Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge: Public Awareness and Response. In partnership with organizations like the National Geographic Society, CSSPAR works to gather and distribute information about sea-level rise and intensified storm surges on the Chesapeake Bay.

Polar ice from both Greenland and Antarctica is melting into the world's oceans. Historically, oceans rise at an average rate of 12.7 to 20.3 centimeters (five to eight inches) every 100 years.

Sea level in the Chesapeake Bay rises at a faster rate than average because the land underneath the bay is sinking. During the last ice age, glaciers pushed the land surrounding the Chesapeake Bay upward. After the glaciers melted, the land slowly retreated to its original position through a process called land subsidence. As the land sinks, the water in the Chesapeake Bay rises. Land subsidence contributes to about half of the Chesapeake region's observed sea-level rise.

The Nation's Estuary

Since so much of the land in the Chesapeake region already lies very near sea level, even a small rise would have a huge impact.

"If an area of land is less than 0.6 meters (two feet) above sea level, and connected to a stream or inlet that is part of the bay, then that area is at risk for what we call 'inundation' by rising sea," explained Sean O'Connor, a National Geographic Society cartographic researcher.

O'Connor created maps for CSSPAR that illustrate the predicted effects of sea-level rise on the Chesapeake Bay. If sea-level rise continues on its current path, the bay would invade the land for miles in some places, destroying approximately 167,000 acres of marshland and 1.9 million homes in the United States by the year 2100.

The Chesapeake Bay is a precious American resource, "the nation's estuary," as O'Connor describes it.

The U.S. capital, Washington, D.C., sits upon the Chesapeake watershed. An estuary is an ecosystem where fresh river water pours into the salty ocean, creating a delicate, marshy habitat. Hundreds of rivers empty into the Chesapeake estuary along the shorelines of six states. Around 18 million people live in the Chesapeake region.

"The shorelines of the Chesapeake are flanked with important human infrastructure, like the naval facilities at Norfolk, Virginia, or the bustling commercialresidential and tourist districts of Baltimore, Maryland. And much more area is graced with low-lying wetlandscypress forests and tidal marshes that are home to countless species of fish, mammals, birds and more. But yet, the estuary finds itself under constant threat of dying out from too much pollution, from overharvesting of species and now from climate change," O'Connor said.

Sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay will destroy the wetland habitats of many birds, fishshellfish and plants. Human populations and structures are also at risk. In many low-lying areas, farms and homes will have to be relocated as the bay floods the land. Roads, bridges and buildings will need to be removed and restructured, as will sewage, draining and other utility systems. As the sea creeps inland, rebuilding the infrastructure of major metropolitan areas such as Baltimore will be an extremely costly endeavor.

Storms are Brewing

The more acute devastation of sea-level rise will threaten the area when storms hit. The region's cities will be flooded as the ocean surges inland.

A higher water level in the bay means stronger storm surges and higher floodwaters. The warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean can thrust powerful tropical storms and hurricanes into the U.S. East Coast, and the low-lying Chesapeake region is vulnerable when one of these storms hits. As global warming intensifies, these storms will become more powerful and more frequent.

More intense storm surges are already hitting the Chesapeake. Scientists from CSSPAR compared data from a 1933 storm (the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane) to data from a 2003 storm, Hurricane Isabel. The storms hit the same coastal area with approximately equal force. However, the storm surge from Isabel was higher than the one in 1933.

Hurricane Isabel's surge was measured at 1.8 to 2.4 meters (six to eight feet) above the normal water levels of the Chesapeake Bay. The same was seen in the Maryland cities of Baltimore and Annapolis.

The deadly storm ripped apart buildings and wetlands, caused millions of dollars in damage, downed thousands of trees and cut off electricity to 2 million people; some did not regain power for a week.

The CSSPAR scientists modeled the impact of a storm like Hurricane Isabel hitting the Chesapeake 70 years in the future, when the sea will be about 0.6 meters (two feet) higher than it is now. The Chesapeake Bay Observing System collected data from shore and marine-based weather stations, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science used this data to simulate and predict future storm surges in the Chesapeake region.

The results of their modeling showed that flooding would be unprecedented. For instance, Isabel caused an approximately 8-foot-high flood in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Add another 0.6 meters (two feet) to the bay, and the flood would be three meters (10 feet) high. In the nation's capital, several national monuments, navy yards and crucial highways would be covered in deep, muddy water. The resort area of Virginia Beach, Virginia, would be economically damaged. Homes, hotels, roads and islands would be flooded and muddy.

Though storms will become more powerful and violent, O'Connor hopes improved technology will reduce human deaths when future storms hit. Such technology can make real-time predictions about the impact of storm surges.

Satellite imagery and use of global positioning system (GPS) coordinates can help people understand the nature of a storm surge, how strong the surge will be, and how long it will last. Damage to homes, businesses or transportation systems could be reduced.

"If we continue to improve these models, we won't necessarily see the same impact on humans (as in past storms) because we would have a better system for educating people," O'Connor said. In other words, this storm prediction technology could save lives.

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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