The U.S. Naval Institute recently published what might be described as an extremely well-timed article speculating that the U.S. Naval Academy may eventually have to relocate because of rising sea levels. Given the weekend’s flooding, including closing the nearby Spa Creek Bridge into Eastport, the premise hardly seems speculative at all. As writer Pat Paterson observes, the military academy is in an especially vulnerable position hemmed in by the Severn River, and Spa and College creeks. Yet given what’s already known about global climate change and rising sea levels, the question is not whether the threat exists but what to do about it. And not just at the academy’s 174-year-old location. “The near-constant litany of bad news on climate change is a warning that mankind is in trouble,” the retired U.S. Navy commander writes.
Is anyone listening? The weekend’s flooding was a product of some uncommon events, a slow-moving Tropical Storm Melissa located off the East Coast and full-moon high tides that pushed brackish water far above normal levels. The Inner Harbor promenade was flooded. In Ocean City, flooding closed all roads south of North Division Street and Philadelphia Avenue south of the U.S. 50 bridge. It was scary enough that officials distributed sand bags in Crisfield to all who needed them. And while those waterfront communities have seen worse flooding during the hurricane seasons past, tides don’t often crest so high when there’s not a heavy rainstorm feeding them. That’s what made it such an eye-opener for long-time residents: What will coastal life be like as ocean levels rise further as ice caps melt and banks overflow?
None of this should come as a surprise. We have known for some time that the Naval Academy grounds may be flooded by 2100 — along with much of Maryland’s waterfront areas. Yet why aren’t government leaders from Washington, D.C., on down more engaged in the task of preparing for what looks increasingly inevitable? It isn’t just the Naval Academy that could face eviction in the coming decades. As a 2017 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report pointed out, the Chesapeake Bay is considered the third most vulnerable area in the United States to sea level rise. This isn’t speculation, it’s fact. Records show that water levels in the Chesapeake Bay have increased between 1.2 to 1.4 inches per decade over the past 100 years. That is 50% more than the average observed around the rest of the world over the same time period. Maryland’s circumstances aren’t just similar to those facing other states, they are worse.
All around we see evidence of relative indifference toward the threat. Waterfront properties are still regarded as valuable as ever. Whether it’s the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean or a bay tributary, buyers pay a premium to be at the water’s edge. Just look at two of Baltimore’s hottest development markets, Harbor East and Canton. In Ocean City, elected officials seem more fearful of the visibility of off-shore wind turbines than of the greenhouse gas emissions they are meant to curb. And politically-driven climate change denial — as absurd as that sounds given the circumstances — may be a factor. A recent Goucher College poll found that while Maryland Democrats believe man-made climate change is real by a roughly 3-to-1 margin, only about 44% of Republicans in this state hold the same view.
Frankly, more Maryland communities need to think about the choices they face. Climate change isn’t going away, it’s effects appear to be worsening. Rising sea levels are not the only adverse effects, of course, but they represent a good starting point for focusing on the choices people must make. Should we be investing in sea walls or other flood mitigation strategies, or should we be preparing to relocate to higher ground? This isn’t just a problem for the next generation, events like the weekend flooding are likely to become increasingly common in the years ahead. Sticking our heads in the sand or mocking “Green New Deal” policies as President Donald Trump is fond of doing gets us exactly nowhere. Give the Pentagon some credit. Our nation’s top defense leaders have been exploring the threat posed by global warming to far-flung military installations for years. We’re past the moment when there might be any hope of reversing the damage done. What’s needed now is a similarly pragmatic approach: How should Maryland best protect itself from the future and far worse floodwaters ahead?