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Sea Level Rise Studies Are a Focus of Initiative Launched by President Broderick

President John R. Broderick and Larry Atkinson

If sea levels rise rapidly during the 21st century, as many scientists believe will happen, Old Dominion University would be among only a handful of large, research universities in the United States to face the threat of saltwater intrusions onto its lawns and into its campus structures.

"We are forced to take very seriously the scientific evidence that predicts the oceans' rise of 2 feet or more before the end of the century," said John R. Broderick, the ODU president. "It's as if we live in a climate-science fishbowl here on the Virginia coast."

With this threat in mind, and believing that all six colleges at ODU can help address these challenges, Broderick decided to institute a university-wide initiative to scrutinize sea level rise. His message was directed not only to the obvious base disciplines of oceanography, marine biology, coastal engineering, and civil engineering, but also to sociology and marketing, economics and risk management, public health and political science, human factors psychology and journalism, education and modeling and simulation.

"We are uniquely situated and very well qualified to assess the multitude of crises a coastal urban area may encounter from sea level rise," Broderick said. "I have been pleased to witness the positive response of our faculty to this initiative. This truly will be a multidisciplinary and comprehensive effort, and I hope it will establish our university as a source of solutions for municipalities everywhere that are threatened by rising seas."

Broderick said those who influenced his focus on this urgent regional issue include James V. Koch, the ODU president emeritus and Board of Visitors Professor of economics who published the article "Climate Change, Global Warming and Ocean Levels in Hampton Roads" in ODU's The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2009.

The article stated that if current trends continue, "We will see the ocean creep up into backyards and witness increased flooding during rainstorms and at high tide. Only those with no concern for the future can afford to ignore this development. This directly implies that we ought to be actively planning a system of dikes and levees (in Hampton Roads) unless we intend to forfeit huge portions of our land to the sea."

Koch subsequently started a think tank made up of Hampton Roads decision makers who meet regularly to keep sea level rise as a high-priority focus of government and business.

The current president and former president consulted earlier this year with Larry Atkinson, an ODU eminent scholar and the Samuel and Fay Slover Endowed Professor of Oceanography, who agreed to explore the feasibility of ODU becoming involved in a major, multidisciplinary way in climate change research and education.

"I've encountered nothing but encouragement," Atkinson said after he had spent the late summer and early fall taking with faculty members, local community and military leaders, and research funding sources in Washington, D.C., and New York about the potential structure of the ODU initiative. The working title of the initiative is "Framework for Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Research and Education at Old Dominion University."

The fruits of Atkinson's work to date include the identification of fields - coastal engineering and coastal geology, for example - in which ODU should target new faculty hires. Provost Carol Simpson has earmarked money to help professors design climate-change components for courses ranging from sedimentary geology to public administration. Cynthia Tomovic, a faculty member in the Darden College of Education, has designed a new course to begin in spring 2011 titled Mitigating the Impact of Global Climate Change. Journalism associate professor Joyce Hoffmann restructured a mass media panel discussion she had previously planned to include comment about the media's coverage of climate change. And Atkinson has worked with Karen Eck, the ODU director of research development, to identify potential research grants for faculty to pursue.

Atkinson has started a website for the initiative and is preparing to launch a newsletter. His work has established himself as the "face of the movement," as Broderick put it. Two planning meetings that Atkinson organized in September and October drew a total of nearly 70 faculty members. "I am grateful to Professor Atkinson for being such a tireless proponent and skilled organizer," the president said.

A visit to ODU Dec. 2 by Rear Adm. David W. Titley, the commander of the Navy Task Force Climate Change, will mark the formal launch of the initiative. The admiral will meet during the day with faculty and students, and also with a group of about 50 business and civic leaders who are interested in climate change research. At 7 p.m. Titley will give a public lecture, "Climate Change and the U.S. Navy," in the Big Blue Room of the Ted Constant Convocation Center as part of the Blue Planet Forum series. This series is sponsored by the ODU Office of Community Engagement, as well as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Nauticus visitor facility in downtown Norfolk.

Titley, who holds the position of Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy, has for several years been a leader of the service's climate change assessment and adaptation planning. This is bringing port modifications in anticipation of sea level rise, not only at U.S. naval facilities, but also at bases shared with allies and partners overseas.

In public statements, Titley also has pointed out just how varied the Navy considers the potential ramification of climate change to be. For example, the service is looking at social - and possibly, political - disruptions that could be caused in certain parts of the world by changes in rainfall patterns, temperature increases, food shortages or population migrations.

Atkinson said his survey of ODU researchers found numerous faculty members already involved in sea-level-rise-related studies, and that some of these reflect the multidisciplinary scope that Broderick had in mind for the Framework initiative. For example, oceanography researchers at ODU are involved with sociologists at other institutions in a study of how the warming ocean could force the migration northward of clam fishermen currently based in Virginia. Marine biology researchers are studying the degradation of coral-reef and other marine ecosystems, believed to be caused at least partially by global warming, and which could have an adverse impact on communities worldwide whose economies are based on seacoast tourism and harvests from the sea.

ODU oceanographers are also prominent among the U.S. researchers who are experts on the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where melting ice, shifting currents and altered food chains can serve as early warnings of sea level rise and the effects of global warming.

Atkinson hopes to shape sea level rise research at ODU to emphasize the impacts faced by a metropolis situated on an ocean, and a prime example would be the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area. "Hampton Roads is an urban coastal community dealing with sea level rise with more urgency that most such communities in the U.S.," he said. "Because of a particular geological factor, our land is slowly sinking while the waters are rising. The region is ranked (depending on the survey) either in the top 10 or top 30 of the world's urban areas most vulnerable to sea level rise."

Atkinson enlisted William A. "Skip" Stiles Jr., executive director of Wetlands Watch, an environmental group based in Norfolk, to speak to faculty at an October planning meeting for the Framework initiative. Stiles, an adjunct ODU instructor who teaches a course in science and public policy, was also a consultant to Koch and Broderick when the initiative was conceived. Maps that Stiles has developed show that Hampton Roads would be rendered almost unrecognizable if it feels the full impact of a 2-to-5-foot rise in sea level by the end of the century.

Stiles helped the ODU researchers think through the questions raised by the threat of this inundation. How does the public assess the threat and will it support the political decisions - and public financial allocations - needed to mitigate the impacts? Should our localities allow some developed areas to be reclaimed by the sea, and, if so, which ones? What will happen to Virginia Beach's wide beaches, and to the tourism industry those beaches promote? How will insurance companies deal with rising waters? Can the Navy maintain such a prominent presence here if its workers who live off base are prevented by more frequent flooding from getting to work?

That last question, of course, could apply to numerous other industries, businesses and agencies, as well as to institutions such as ODU.

"ODU can facilitate research in sea level rise through internal actions, such as hiring more faculty in relevant research areas, and also external actions, such as hosting workshops and fostering collaborative activities among the university, industry and government," Atkinson said.

"I see a real niche for us, as a university in an urban coastal environment. From my talks with federal officials, I can say that they see this challenge as something faced by New York, Charleston, Miami and the Gulf Coast, as well as Hampton Roads. Since the federal government is going to end up footing the bill for studies on this subject and for mitigation of the effects, these people I have met with would like to make sure all regions share information, and they look to us to provide leadership in doing that.

"They are also very impressed when they learn that our initiative was started by the president of our university. It shows that the commitment starts at the very top."

This article was posted on: November 19, 2010

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