Thursday, December 2, 2010

The sky may not be falling, but Norfolk really does appear to be drowning . . .

I write this blog most mornings at home, settling down to my computer with a cup of coffee about 7:30. This means I'm usually not in my car, heading into the studio, and actually listening to WMRA until sometime during On Point. 

Driving in yesterday, I listened to one of the most "on point" (I couldn't resist) discussions of climate change I've ever heard. It revolved around one coastal city's attempts to cope with rising water. The city was Norfolk; the rising water is the Atlantic.

The impetus for the show appeared to come from Leslie Kaufman's excellent article in last Thursday's New York Times, "Front-Line City in Virginia Tackles Rising Sea."

Coastal waters are rising – by between 15 and 17 inches over the past century – making shoreline areas more susceptible to storms, flooding and tidal surges. In this photo: Norfolk's Colonial Place neighborhood as high tide approaches during a nor'easter Friday, Nov. 13, 2009.

Ms. Kaufman begins in Hazel Peck's front yard. Mrs. Peck has lived for forty years in a section of Norfolk known as Larchmont, which is "built in a sharp 'u' around a bay off the Lafayette River."

Here in Larchmont, according to Ms. Kaufman,

residents pay close attention to the lunar calendar, much as other suburbanites might attend to the daily flow of commuter traffic.
If the moon is going to be full the night before Hazel Peck needs her car, for example, she parks it on a parallel block, away from the river. The next morning, she walks through a neighbor’s backyard to avoid the two-to-three-foot-deep puddle that routinely accumulates on her street after high tides.
Tidal flooding used to happen only occasionally, Ms. Kaufman quotes Mrs. Peck as saying, but  last month "there were eight or nine days when the tide was so doggone high it was difficult to drive." 

Like many other cities, [Ms. Kaufman writes], Norfolk was built on filled-in marsh. Now that fill is settling and compacting. In addition, the city is in an area where significant natural sinking of land is occurring. The result is that Norfolk has experienced the highest relative increase in sea level on the East Coast — 14.5 inches since 1930, according to readings by the Sewells Point naval station here.
Climate change is a subject of friction in Virginia. The state’s attorney general, Ken T. Cuccinelli II, is trying to prove that a prominent climate scientist engaged in fraud when he was a researcher at the University of Virginia. But the residents of coastal neighborhoods here are less interested in the debate than in the real-time consequences of a rise in sea level.

Imagine, injecting reality into a conversation about climate change!

On Point's discussion of the situation in Norfolk, hosted by Tom Ashbrook,  included Ms. Kaufman (who covers national environmental  issues for the New York Times), William “Skip” Stiles (executive director of Wetlands Watch), Theresa Whibley (Norfolk city councillor representing Ward 2, which contains some of the areas of Norfolk hardest hit by flooding) and Orrin Pilkey (professor emeritus of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University, and co-author of The Rising Sea). There wasn't a Richmond politician in sound! It was just informed people talking about their first-hand observations of a very real problem and making suggestions for ways to deal with it. Their conversation was sensible and civil.

The city of Norfolk, Va., is spending a lot of money to raise Richmond Crescent by 18 inches to avert routine flooding at high tide. Matthew Eich for The New York Times

There are other east coast cities threatened by rising Atlantic Ocean tides, among them New York. But Norfolk appears to be out front in recognizing and addressing the problem. Today, in fact, Old Dominion University will announce its plans to create a national center for studying all things related to rising sea levels resulting from climate change.

But back to On Point . . .

I loved the absence of politics in yesterday's discussion. Sadly and alarmingly, we've all but lost the ability to face reality without injecting politics into our view of it. And this more than anything, it seems to me, holds us back from addressing our country's very real problems.

I can't help but think it would be difficult for even our Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, who's by way of being the poster boy for those who would turn aside from addressing issues related to climate change, to argue against Mrs. Peck's forty years of first-hand observation of Norfolk's rising tides.

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