"*" indicates required fields

Virginia and Climate Change

Virginia and Climate Change

share this


With a population of 8.2 million, Virginia is the 12th most populous state in the country. Virginia borders between the mid-Atlantic region and the Southeast; its climate has similarly been a border. Compared to other regions, like the southwest or the Northeast, warming in Virginia has been moderate over the last 50 years, with warming occurring mostly in the winter months. Overall precipitation has changed, with summers becoming drier and autumns becoming wetter. Importantly, the weather of Virginia, like weather around the world, has become more variable and unpredictable, featuring more of both extreme wet and extreme dry periods.

Southeastern Virginia, including Hampton Roads, is anticipated to be at the epicenter of the state’s climate-change impacts due to its low elevation and exposure to coastal storms. Without government support from the national flood insurance program, private insurers are beginning to pull away from insuring high-risk regions along the coast, due to threats from storm surges.[i] However, the rest of the state will not escape harm. As far up Virginia’s rivers to cities like Richmond or Alexandria, river flooding and storm surges will threaten built infrastructure and people’s homes.

Away from the coast, damages are likely to be less apparent, but also harmful. Virginia has become a leader in high-value agricultural products, particularly for export. Changes in the climate will threaten existing agriculture by making weather more unpredictable and make it more difficult to plan for future events.

The Tidewater Region at Risk from Sea Level Rise and Storm Surges

Virginia’s tidewater region is one of the most vulnerable regions of the U.S. to the dangerous combination of sea level rise and coastal storms. Virginia’s coastal zone is the second most vulnerable region in the U.S. —surpassed only by the area surrounding New Orleans—to the predicted impacts of climate change.

What both of these regions share is the combination of rising seas and sinking land. Land subsidence is typical of coastal delta regions, because rapid accumulation of sediment also traps a great deal of water. Over time, as new layers of sediment are deposited, water is squeezed out of the underlying deposits, causing compaction and the land surface to sink.[ii] Such a phenomenon is accelerated by built infrastructure like cities or military bases. The combination of sea level rise and land subsidence in the tidewater region of the lower Chesapeake Bay is a vicious mix. The effects are clear to see: in Norfolk, a tide gauge shows a sea level rise of 14.5 inches over the past century and rising.[iii]

Even though the region has not received a direct hit from a Hurricane or Tropical Storm for many years, the damage from near misses shows how dangerous such a hit would be. Hurricane Isabel in 2003 cost the state $925 million in damages and killed ten people.[iv]


The concentration of military infrastructure in the Norfolk and Hampton Roads area is unparalleled anywhere in the world. It is the world’s largest naval station, supporting 75 ships (including 5 aircraft carriers). Joint Base Langley-Eustis, on the other side of the James River from Norfolk, is the headquarters of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command and host to the 1st Fighter Wing, flying F-22 Raptors.

Half of the economy of the Hampton Roads region is tied to defense spending. If persistent inundation from the sea caused the Navy to look for alternative places to base its ships, the effects could devastate the local economy; it has been estimated that the loss of just one aircraft carrier based in Hampton Roads could cost the regional economy $900 million per year.[v]

The US Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program is conducting a thorough assessment of the impacts of climate change on coastal military installations. The military understands the threats, and is working to make Naval Base Norfolk and the other installations around Hampton Roads resilient to rising sea levels and coastal storms.

Building a 21st Century Vision of Sustainable Security in Virginia

The U.S. Military is already planning for the effects of climate change rise at its bases in Hampton Roads. If these efforts were simply to build sea walls or other protective barriers around military bases, the effects would be devastating to local communities around the base – areas that the base relies upon for support. For that reason, military leadership has begun to engage with local governments and stakeholders in efforts to ensure resilience for the entire region.

These efforts can provide a model for the rest of the country – government officials working with local residents to ensure resilience to climate change.

Also check out our Pay Now Pay Later report on Virginia:

PNPL 2011 Virginia by The American Security Project


[i] Stiles, William A, Impacts of Climate Change on the Chesapeake Bay. Testimony to Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands and Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans, and Wildlife, Committee on Natural Resources, 2009, 2. http://wetlandswatch.org/Portals/3/WW%20documents/Stiles_VA_Climate%20Change_Testimony_2009.pdf

[ii] Bozmoski, Alex and Holland, Andrew, “Risk, Reward & Revolution: Why globalizing the natural gas revolution is smart environmental and economic policy,” Pelican Institute, January 2014. http://www.thepelicanpost.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/NaturalGasGlobal_report_LO8.pdf

[iii] Kovarik, Bill, “Virginia Mayors Plead for Help with Climate Change,” Scientific American, September 17th 2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/virginia-mayors-plead-for-help-with-climate-change/

[iv] National Hurricane Center, Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Isabel, 6 – 19 September 2003, January 16, 2004. http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/2003isabel.shtml

[v] Peter Frost, “Economy: Defense dollars keep us afloat,” Dailypress.com, October 14, 2009. http://articles.dailypress.com/2009-10-14/news/0910130102_1_defense-spending-housing-market-koch/2 (accessed March 12, 2014)