The floor is water


Fin Worrall

Every summer in Virginia Beach, millions of tourists flock to the Oceanfront’s miles of beach and the hotels situated alongside them. Much of the community depends on tourism to sustain its economy. Yet, on the horizon, a difficult problem slowly arises, both figuratively as well as literally. Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads as a whole sits directly in the crosshairs of sea level rise. Old Dominion University predicts that Hampton Roads could lose $67 billion dollars by 2099 to the problem, as well as miles of coastline, businesses, and houses. 

While this reality may not be upon us in Virginia Beach, it is a harsh reality for a certain village thousands of miles in Alaska. Far north in the waterlogged Alaskan bush sits the town of Newtok, home to 400 people and 40 wooden, one-story buildings. Out in this tranquil, frost-molded tundra, the locals, mainly consisting of Qaluyaarmiuts, make a living through fishing, hunting, gathering eggs, and berry picking. Yet, Newtok faces a grave and existential problem, a ticking timer on this 2000-year-old culture.

The problem? Sea level rise. 

The shore of which Newtok sits is rapidly eroding, spurred on by rain storms, melting permafrost, and sea level rise at the pace of 70 feet a year. This September, in one tropical storm, 34 feet of land was drained away from Newtok’s coast, leaving the town’s school 30 feet of buffer from the water. “Next year, we’ll probably have to demolish the part of the school that’s closest to the river to keep it from falling in,” said Principal Dawn Lloyd.

As a result, their community has felt wide-reaching waves of impact. The water has eaten away at their critical infrastructure, such as their water treatment plant, forcing residents to use extreme measures for their basic needs. Furthermore, Newtok has experienced a large interest of media centered around them in recent years. “They usually stay for two to three days,” said Lloyd, “because there are no hotels or places to stay in Newtok, visitors generally stay at the school. They sleep in a classroom and pack up their stuff before students arrive.”

Yet, salvation is coming for the people of Newtok. Despite its price tag of $125 million dollars, a relocation effort has been initiated, something that Newtok residents have asked for since 1994. As a result, beginning in 2019, Newtok residents began moving across the river to Mertarvik, or “place of the spring,” a settlement selected to give the new residents a permanent home. Built with federal funding, including a $25 million dollar infrastructure bill from the Biden Administration, Mertarvik is an organized and modern-feeling liberation from the pressures of Newtok. 

Through the many tribulations that the Newtok residents have endured, they continue to stick with the village. Why? Lloyd explains that the people of the bush are there by choice, “they could all get jobs in the cities if they wanted to, but they prefer the subsistence lifestyle out here,” she added. They hold a deep connection to their lands and the lifestyle that it brings. 

Newtok is a microcosm of culture and livelihood, an outpost of civilization within the Alaskan bush, in a lively fight against the rising tide. While Newtok’s story may be the first chapter in the global fight against the waters, it will definitely not be the last, for by the year 2100, 410 million people worldwide could fall within the high tide mark, a number equal to the population of over 1.3 million Newtoks. 

Sea level rise is powered by the mass quantities of ice that pour into the oceans, over 80,000 Empire State Buildings melting into the sea every year. Additionally, thermal expansion accounts for around a third of sea level rise. This amount is so high due to 90% of energy from the trapped heat from the sun being absorbed by the oceans, an amount equivalent to 5 Hiroshima atomic bombs striking the surface of the ocean each second.

Miami, Venice, Jakarta, Mumbai, Bangkok, New Orleans, Lagos, Ho Chi Minh, and Shanghai all face sea level rise problems in the near future. Shanghai contains 20 million residents currently in jeopardy of flooding by 2100, the largest of any city in the world. The Chinese government recognizes this problem and has sunk vast sums of money into combating this problem, a move they hope will be able to protect their largest economic center. 

Tangier Island, only 70 miles away from PA, faces a similar reality as Newtok. The 400-person village, set in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, is washing away. Since 1850, the island, made up of three slightly elevated ridges and marsh, has lost 66% of its total land mass, the waters quickly encroaching on the populated area. Within 10 years, two of the ridges could be reduced to wetlands, and by 2053 the whole island to a simple marshy tombstone, the only reminder of the unique pocket of culture that existed there. 

Yet, what should be most concerning for PA is our own community, Virginia Beach. Virginia Beach may lie an average of 12 feet (3.7 meters) above sea level, yet vast stretches of the coastal areas will, without intervention by the city, be claimed by the ocean. Virginia Beach has seen the highest rate of sea level rise on the whole Atlantic coast, a rise of 14 inches since 1950. This number is further enhanced by the fact that Hampton Roads sinks at around a rate of 1 inch every 10 years.

Virginia Beach’s government has begun to move forward with plans to protect Virginia Beach, such as the “Sea Level Wise” program, one that in their own words is for “addressing rising sea levels and recurrent flooding risks.” This plan dedicates $1.9 million dollars to building preventative infrastructure and developing a strategy for the future. It is certainly a move forward, but one that clearly lacks a sufficient budget to address such a significant climate issue. 

As the century progresses the Virginia Beach local government faces an uncomfortable dilemma. Virginia Beach has a $3.3 billion dollar a year tourism industry, the preservation of which would necessitate large, ugly sea walls, a definite turn-off for tourists. Furthermore, such a project would require a large tax bill, $1 billion dollars, for which effects would be spread out over the ensuing century. However, if they instead decide to ignore the problem, much of the Oceanfront’s property could be damaged, if not destroyed, and the beach washed away along with the tourism. 

All across the world, from the cold and sparsely populated village of Newtok, to the dense, bustling, skyscraper-horizoned Shanghai, to our own Virginia Beach, sea level rise is here, and becoming more ‘here’ every day. High-level government officials, business owners, or high school students, anywhere from the coastal slums of overcrowded Mumbai, to the atoll nations of the Pacific Islands will need to make difficult decisions, ones of prevention, protection, or even retreat. Life will continue, but the water pressing ever closer will make change inescapable.

Continue reading about Sea Level Rise: A beautiful article by the Atlantic on Newtok or an in depth report on sea level rise in the Hampton Roads

Thank you to Principal Dawn Lloyd of Apruyan School in Newtok, Alaska and her students for their time and assistance in the creation of this article.

Works Cited Page: Click here