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Climate realities sink in

With so much outside local control, is it time to give up on the Chesapeake Bay?

As if the failings of a do-nothing Congress and the continued strife in the Middle East weren't depressing enough, it's been a rough week for those gauging the impact of climate change on Maryland, too. First comes a report that forecasts a big chunk of the state will be underwater by 2100, and then researchers revealed that those rising waters are getting a whole lot warmer a whole lot faster than expected.

Even that brief description doesn't do justice to the scale of the environmental impact that awaits. Research published one week ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences includes an interactive map and readers should check it out at sealevel.climatecentral.org. Here in Baltimore, there's little comfort in knowing that The Sun's own headquarters at 501 N. Calvert St. is mere decades from waterfront status, even less in recognizing that unless Ocean City builds some really high walls or perhaps a dome, its future residents will require scuba gear.

Meanwhile, University of Maryland researchers used satellite data to judge how warm the Chesapeake has gotten, and the outlook isn't good. Not only have average temperatures risen 1.2 degrees per decade since the 1980s, but there are areas such as Baltimore where it's gotten even worse. That warming is likely to bring fundamental change to the marine ecology and exacerbate some of the worst impacts of water pollution such as "dead zones" and an overall loss of the dissolved oxygen needed to sustain life underwater.

Scientists have been warning about the impact of climate change for a long time, but as the effects are better understood and monitored, the theoretical is quickly becoming the quantifiable. It's one thing to be warned of rising sea levels and warming temperatures in the long-term (including NASA's warning that 2015 may be hottest year yet recorded), it's quite another to see the data translated into specifics like Bowleys Quarters or Edgemere essentially being wiped out in the worst-case scenario.

Obviously, the best course of action is for the U.S. to pursue energy policies that reduce the burning of fossil fuel and the production of greenhouse gases while looking for opportunities to invest in various forms of mitigation. The upcoming United Nations climate change conference in Paris and the possibility of reaching a broad agreement with other nations, particularly major polluters like China and India, offer some hope and, closer to home, so might greater support for an aggressive climate change agenda in Congress. That Rep. Andy Harris, a conservative Republican and climate change skeptic, represents the Eastern Shore, the region of Maryland with the most to lose from rising tides, is a circumstance that 1st District voters with an instinct for self-preservation may wish to reconsider.

But there's another danger that might be associated with the depressing climate change news: Might Marylanders be inclined to give up on the Chesapeake Bay's future? After all, one might reason, it's clearly not destined to be what it once was — not by industrialized 20th-century standards, let alone by the more pristine circumstances first encountered so famously by English explorer Captain John Smith in 1608. Much as the silt trapped behind the Conowingo Dam has wrongly been a rallying cry by rural counties seeking to avoid the costs or inconvenience of anti-pollution laws or taxes, the challenge of climate change shouldn't distract from local cleanup efforts.

Maryland seems destined to have a larger and overall warmer Chesapeake Bay, but that doesn't mean it ought to have an algae-choked mess made worse by homeowners who allow septic tanks to fail, communities that ignore harmful stormwater runoff or farmers who resist nutrient conservation practices. Wildlife have an extraordinary ability to adapt. After all, if climate change can extend the range of dengue fever-carrying moquitoes to the mainland U.S., might it ultimately prove helpful for certain more desirable species, too? It was also reported last week that Maryland rockfish had an above average spawn this year after several subpar breeding seasons. Clearly, there are still subtle changes taking place in an ecosystem that remains worthy of protection and, where possible, restoration. The future of the Chesapeake Bay is still largely about what we are willing to make of it, come what may.

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