Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland, is seen from above on March 20, 2017. Established as a sanctuary for migrating birds, the refuge spans more than 28,000 acres along the Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore. Nearly one-third of Maryland's tidal wetlands—critical habitat for birds traveling along the Atlantic Flyway migration route—are encompassed in Blackwater's boundaries.
Since the mid-20th century, however, close to 8,000 acres of Blackwater's wetlands have been lost. Each year, erosion, land subsidence and rising sea levels have claimed more than 150 acres of marsh. As areas are flooded with saltwater, sensitive marsh plants are unable to survive. Tidal marshes have begun migrating to higher ground, creating new wetland areas, but the gain of less than 3,000 acres since the 1930s has not been enough to offset the losses.
According to recent projections, the changing landscape shows no signs of slowing. The Maryland Commission on Climate Change has documented sea levels rising more than one foot in the last century, and they predict a rise of 3.7 feet by the end of this century. A 2013 assessment by The Conservation Fund and Audubon Maryland-DC found that, with a three-foot rise in sea levels, virtually all of Blackwater's tidal marshes would be underwater.
Refuge managers are working to curtail the effects of a sinking refuge though a variety of projects, including a "thin layer spraying project"—pumping mud from the bottom of the Blackwater River and spraying it in a thin layer to raise the wetland's elevation. Managers hope the work will not only protect existing habitat, but also support the marsh's natural ability to rebuild itself.
Learn about the Chesapeake Bay Program's work to bolster climate resiliency in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Image by Will Parson, with aerial support provided by SouthWings
A recent report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlines trends related to climate change in the United States, with data related to 37 climate indicators such as air and water temperatures, river and coastal flooding, ocean acidity and sea level rise.
New to the fourth edition of Climate Change Indicators in the United States is information on stream temperatures in the Chesapeake Bay region. After studying more than 50 years’ worth of data from 129 stream monitoring sites, experts found that stream temperatures are increasing throughout the watershed—across Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia—but the largest increases have occurred in the southern portions of the region. Water temperatures increased by an average of 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit (F) across all sites and by 2.2 degrees F at sites with trends considered statistically significant (to a 95-percent level).
Other effects of climate change throughout the Chesapeake Bay region are highlighted in the report. Washington, D.C., for example, has seen peak cherry blossom bloom dates shift approximately five days earlier since 1921. And from 2010 to 2015, Annapolis, Maryland, saw the second highest average number of coastal flood days: 46 days per year. The city has also experienced one of the most dramatic increases in overall frequency of flooding, where floods are at least 10 times more common than in the 1950s.
Also released in August is the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) State of the Climate report, which confirmed that 2015 surpassed 2014 as the warmest year on record since the mid-to-late 19th century. The report, which is based on contributions from more than 450 scientists from 62 countries, found that land and ocean temperatures, sea level rise and greenhouse gases all broke previously-held records.
The Chesapeake Bay has more than 11,600 miles of shoreline. Evidence of its changing tides can be observed along much of the region, whether it is a high water mark on a dock piling, a line of seaweed on a beach or a shorebird pulling shellfish from the mud of a temporarily exposed flat.
In some watershed cities—like Annapolis, Maryland—the difference between high and low tides is about one foot. In others—like Norfolk, Virginia—this difference can reach up to three feet. We have built our roads, homes and buildings around the regular movement of this water. But as sea levels rise, land subsides and natural barriers to coastal flooding are lost, our coastal cities will face more impactful high-tide flooding that occurs regardless of heavy winds or rain.
High-tide flooding has also been called sunny-day, shallow coastal or nuisance flooding. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) records a high-tide flood when one of its local tide gauges measures a water level above the local threshold for minor impacts. While the depth and extent of high-tide floods can vary, the nuisances that result are far from minor: disrupted transportation, degraded stormwater management systems, flooded roads, homes and businesses, and strained maintenance budgets.
Rates of high-tide flooding on all coasts are rising. In a June 2016 report on the state of high-tide nuisance flooding in the United States, NOAA researchers attribute increasing flood frequencies to local sea level rise—which itself is attributed to the melting of ice on land as the air warms and the expansion of seawater as oceans warm—and local land subsidence, or the settling or sinking of land. Indeed, according to the report, “annual flood rates have increased locally by two or three times or more as compared to the rate experienced 20 years ago.”
Of the 28 local long-term tide gauges operated by NOAA, four are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Together, these four cities—Annapolis and Baltimore in Maryland, Norfolk in Virginia and the District of Columbia—experienced a total of 128 high-tide flood days in 2015, with Baltimore and Norfolk experiencing local totals just two days and one day below the highest historical record. These floods were likely exacerbated by El Niño, which affected winds and storm tracks along the mid-Atlantic and West coasts.
The 2016 outlook for each of these four cities is lower than the number of flood days the cities observed in 2015: 15 flood days are expected to occur in 2016 in Baltimore, 47 in Annapolis, 33 in Washington, D.C., and 8 in Norfolk. However, NOAA expects future outlooks to underestimate flood days because of the increasingly “nonlinear response” flood frequencies will have to sea level rise. Furthermore, the agency’s high-tide flood outlook does not account for flooding compounded by local rainfall, and precipitation in the watershed is expected to increase in response to climate change.
While we cannot reverse the effects of climate change that have already been observed in the region—which include warming temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events, as well as coastal flooding, eroding shorelines and changes in the abundance and migration patterns of wildlife—we can enhance our resiliency against them. To build resiliency against high-tide flooding, for example, cities have relied on flood barriers to block rising water, drafted ambitious plans to raise low-lying streets and constructed new facilities higher off the ground.
Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to increasing the resiliency of the region’s communities, living resources and wildlife habitats to the adverse impacts of changing environmental conditions. Learn about our work to monitor and assess the trends and impacts of climate change and to pursue, design and construct restoration and protection projects that will enhance the resiliency of our ecosystem.
Eight of the top 10 U.S. cities that have seen an increase in “nuisance flooding” alongside rising seas are on the East Coast, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Four of the top 10 cities are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Annapolis and Baltimore lead the list with a 925 and 920 percent increase in their average number of nuisance floods since 1960. Washington, D.C., has seen a 373 percent increase, while Norfolk has seen a 325 percent increase.
According to the report, nuisance flooding—or minor flooding that closes roads, overwhelms storm drains and compromises infrastructure never designed to withstand inundation or saltwater exposure—will worsen as sea level rise accelerates. Indeed, nuisance flooding has become “more noticeable and widespread” because of rising seas, sinking land and the loss of natural flood barriers.
“As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause flooding,” said William Sweet, oceanographer and lead author of the report, in a media release. “Flooding now occurs with high tides.”
Image courtesy rwillia533/Flickr
The study was conducted by scientists at the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, who compared data from 45 tide gauges with reports of nuisance floods; whether or not a nuisance flood has taken place is determined at the local level by a National Weather Service threshold. It is hoped the findings will “heighten awareness of a growing problem” and “encourage resiliency efforts in response to” sea level rise.
An understanding of where floods are occurring is integral to building climate resiliency. Once coastal communities know where environmental threats and vulnerabilities lie, they can take steps to move growth and development away from the coast, enhance preparedness efforts to protect human health and protect and restore wetlands, buffers and barrier islands that might shield the shoreline from strong wind and waves.
The Chesapeake Bay Program has set a goal to increase the climate resiliency of the watershed’s living resources and public infrastructure, using monitoring, assessment and adaptation to ensure the region withstands the impacts of a changing climate.