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On Our Way to Atlantis: Virginia Underwater

The Causes and Effects of Sea Level Rise and How to Prevent It

By: Naila Rivera-Morales, Nauticus Education Volunteer and Youth Action Council Member, Age 15

With the current pandemic, it is hard to focus our eyes on any other global issues. However, past concerns have not disappeared. The Earth has been experiencing many record-breaking temperatures in recent years. This can be attributed to a well-known phenomenon called climate change. Climate change has had many effects on the Earth with one of them being sea level rise. 

Sea level rise is a huge concern here in Virginia. The rising levels in Virginia have both global and local factors. The global factors include thermal expansion and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets. Thermal expansion produces ⅓ of global sea-level rise. Thermal expansion is when ocean waters heat up and subsequently expand up and onto the land. You can think of this as a pot of water boiling. The hotter the pot of water gets, the higher the water surface gets and spreads up and out of the pot. Next up, is the melting of glaciers and ice sheets. Over 1,700 trillion pounds of ice melt from ice sheets and glaciers in the world.  The melting of ice in the oceans works just like ice melting in a cup. The more ice melts, the higher the water level will be.

The slowing of the Gulf Stream is a big factor of sea-level rise in Virginia. The Gulf Stream is a strong ocean current that brings warm water up from the Gulf Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean and along the whole eastern coast of North America. As the warm water moves up north into the Atlantic Ocean, it comes in contact with cold water. The warm water, being less dense, rises above the cold water. It starts to cool and then sinks creating a normal thermal circulation of water. However, the melting glaciers introduce cold, fresh water which is also less dense than cold, salt water. So, that slows down the speed of the sinking warm water and then, in turn, slows down the whole ocean circulation of water causing sea levels to rise.

Another contributing factor is land sinkage. Land sinkage is caused by heavy infrastructure (building and utilities framework), groundwater withdrawal, and the shifting of tectonic plates. Heavy infrastructure is pushing land down with its weight. Groundwater withdrawal is leveling us with the ocean waters as we take more of it out. Finally, tectonic plates are sliding under each other causing land to sink downwards. Land in Virginia is getting 1 inch lower every 10 years.

In general, the sea level has risen 8-9 inches since 1880. Additionally, the rate at which the sea level rises has more than doubled from 1.4mm to 3.6mm per year from 2006-2015. All this sea-level rise has caused many negative side effects. Sea level rise plays major roles in flooding, erosion, and storm hazards. High tide flooding has increased in frequency by 300% – 900% than 50 years ago.  This is not good news as 40% of Americans live in coastal areas. In Virginia alone, there are over 45,000 properties at risk from tidal flooding.

It might seem like there is no hope left, but there very much is. You can take simple steps that can aid greatly in saving the Earth. A very good thing to do is to lower your carbon profile. You can do this by:

  1.  Choose a public mode of transport, or use a vehicle that doesn’t use fuel like biking.
  2. Pull the plugs of idle electronics to save electricity. 
  3. Support renewable sources of energy such as solar or wind power. 
  4. Reduce your water waste. You could do this by taking shorter showers, closing the tap while brushing your teeth, or eating fewer meat products. 
  5. Eat fewer meat products is consuming all the food that you have rather than throwing away excess food. 
  6. Most importantly, speak out. Inform your friends and families about sea-level rise and place information about sea-level rise on your social media platforms. Message your state representatives with suggestions on policies or ask them to support existing policies.

One person alone can not do much, but if we all work together we can preserve our planet for generations to come!

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