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Regional partners to focus on sea-level rise in Delaware

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June 18, 2014

A new partnership of scientists and federal officials from Delaware to Virginia will take a regional look at sea-level rise and how best to prepare for the impacts, including shoreline loss and increased flooding from storms.

One of their first initiatives could be a regional effort to develop a real time, online, coastal flood map similar to what was developed at the University of Delaware for Delaware Bay following the Mother's Day storm of 2008.

That storm, while damaging along the ocean coast, created significant – and unanticipated flooding in the towns and communities along Delaware Bay. At the time, there wasn't a good monitoring or warning system in place.

"Delaware could be the model for the rest of the mid-Atlantic area," said Nancy Targett, dean of the University's College of Earth, Ocean and the Environment.

"We're a hot spot for sea-level rise."

The new Mid-Atlantic Coastal Resiliency Institute could take flood and elevation mapping already available in Maryland and Virginia along with weather data and create something similar for other vulnerable coastal communities, she said.

One reason for the interest in a partnership on both the Delmarva Peninsula and into Tidewater Virginia is the significant federal investment in land from NASA's Wallops Island facility near Chincoteague, Virginia, to extensive National Parks Service land to the military complexes in and around Norfolk, she said.

In addition, the area from Delaware south to Norfolk has seen significant sea level rise and coastal changes in the last 100 years. Sea level rise from Boston to North Carolina exceeds the global average of .6 to 1 millimeter a year.

At the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, sea level is rising annually more than six times as fast. At Lewes, Reedy Island, and in Maryland's Chesapeake City and Cambridgethe rate is more than three times faster and at Ocean City, Maryland, it's rising more than five times as fast.

Researchers believe some, but not all, of the increase is likely due to land subsidence. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently estimated that sea levels globally will increase by about 1.7 feet to 3.2 feet by the end of the century. Related research forecasts note that middle Atlantic increases could reach 1.7 feet by 2050 and 3.2 feet to 4.9 feet by 2100 because of local geologic factors.

Sea level rise already has had a significant impact at Wallops Island, where state and federal officials estimate $1 billion in resources and infrastructure is at risk. In August 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers completed a $43 million shoreline stabilization project to protect the flight facility. Superstorm Sandy damaged the sea wall and beach and work on $11.3 million in repairs is expected this year.

"To understand the impact of climate-change elements such as sea-level rise, extreme weather and degraded coastal ecosystems, you must go where the signal is the strongest," said Caroline Massey, assistant director for Management Operations at NASA Wallops. "The mid-Atlantic is unique with both protected, undeveloped ecological coastline as well as intense coastal development, which makes it a perfect living laboratory to understand the natural and human-induced effects at the shore."

One of the goals of the partnership it to integrate the science so researchers can draw from the work of others, partner on projects and collaborate on the work they already are doing. In addition, the institute will develop tools that can help coastal residents and planners understand, predict and incorporate flood-ready resilience for both developed and undeveloped shorelines in the region.

Delaware climatologist Daniel J. Leathers, whose team helped developed the Delaware Bay real-time monitoring system along with scientists from the Delaware Geological Survey, demonstrated the system for U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del, who visited the university's Lewes campus Friday.

Delaware's congressional delegation helped make the connection between NASA officials, who initially proposed a regional institute where federal and academic researchers could come together on sea-level rise issues, and the University of Delaware.

"I am proud of the University of Delaware for being chosen as one of four universities to join the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Resilience Institute," Carper said. "UD's partnership in this institute, which is tasked with climate change research and helping communities become more resilient to climate change, is another feather in its cap when it comes to world-class research using cutting-edge technology," Carper said. "This is extremely important work that affects all Delawareans given the recent harsh weather and super storms."

Besides the University of Delaware, the institute team includes: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center – Greenbelt Campus, Wallops Flight Facility and the Goddard Institute of Space Science; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; U.S. Geologic Survey; Chincoteague Bay Field Station of the Marine Science Consortium (which includes 13 Pennsylvania Colleges); College of William and Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science; University of Virginia, Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research Program; University of Maryland, College Park; The Nature Conservancy.

Leathers explained the mapping product Friday using the real-time tide and weather data. He said that because of Friday's full moon, people along Delaware Bay could expect higher than normal tides. But the online system lets them look down to the house level to see whether there will be flooding in their area or if access roads in and out of a community will remain open. In other words, he explained, "If you're going to have a way out of town if the flooding gets much worse."

The University of Delaware is working on another project, a phone app that would let emergency responders in charge on an evacuation go house by house and show homeowners the potential flood impact.

They could show them "this is your house and this is how deep the water's going to be," Leathers said.

Contact Molly Murray at (302) 463-3334 or mmurray@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @MollyMurraytnj.

For questions and information, contact DGS at
delgeosurvey@udel.edu, 302-831-2833