Commentary: Metro D.C. prepares for climate change

July 14, 2013

Occasionally we publish blog posts, speech transcripts and other commentaries of interest to the Washington business community. Here is an excerpt from a recent post on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ “The Yardstick” blog about the state of climate change locally.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has released our climate change adaptation report for the region. Spurred by a technical assistance grant from Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, COG began meeting with member jurisdictions to discuss adaptation planning strategies. The report serves to not only identify the direct effects of climate change, but also to advance a dialogue for local resiliency plans in the region.

The next decades will bring the effects of climate change — rising sea levels, warmer climates, more extreme weather — to the globe, the nation and our region. The Chesapeake Bay area is virtually certain to experience higher sea levels, which will impact water levels in the tidal portions of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. The region will very likely see higher temperatures and precipitation concentrated in heavier events.

The report estimates that sea levels have risen a foot in the Chesapeake Bay [over the past century], and will continue to rise another 1 to 3 feet by the year 2100. Recently reaffirmed by the Maryland Climate Change Commission, this rise in Chesapeake water levels requires planning for additional impacts on coastal areas, including the communities along the tidal Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

Extreme precipitation events will increase, causing flooding and damaged property. In the U.S., flood-prone lands will increase by 40 to 45 percent over the next 90 years, and as development in the D.C. region grows, preparation will be required in low-lying areas. Flooding due to megastorms, combined with wind and precipitation damage, costs the region millions of dollars annually, and is increasingly punctuated by “billion dollar events” such as 2003’s Hurricane Isabel and last year’s Hurricane Sandy. This does not account for the dozens of lives lost in these events.

The report finds that as temperatures rise, the Chesapeake will effectively travel south in terms of temperature change. If greenhouse gases are not substantially reduced, by 2050, the summer water temperature of America’s largest estuary could mirror today’s North Carolina Sound; by 2100, the temperature may mirror the central coast of Florida. Rising temperatures and increased [carbon dioxide] will decrease dissolved oxygen levels and acidification of the water, threatening oyster beds and aquatic vegetation. This has major implications for water quality throughout the region.

The council is working with various agencies in the region grappling with climate changes, such as NASA. “COG [began] working with us and others in preparation for events to explore the D.C. area’s climate risks, to define practical adaptations, and to explore how many organizations can work together to adapt,” notes Kim Toufectis, a master planner at NASA. “What began in New York, we look forward to sharing with our hometown,” continued Toufectis, highlighting the importance of applying best practices in climate adaptability.

The council has worked extensively to address the root causes of global warming, establishing greenhouse gas reduction goals and a Climate and Energy Action Plan to mitigate emissions. This new report has found, citing regional climate experts, that local impacts will be substantial. Reducing global emissions is the crucial factor in reducing risks of climate change in the long term. The report [finds that since] there is virtual certainty that climate change will continue to impact our infrastructure, safety, and health for decades, reducing the severity of those changes through adaptation and emissions reductions measures is critical for our region.

This report outlines clear steps for how to adapt to the effects of climate change. We identify key areas for preparedness, including hardening our transportation, water, and energy infrastructure, smart development with more resilient land use practices and the continued engagement of the climate science community. The council will continue to engage local partners to plan for the future and work to reduce carbon emissions in the region.

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