Sea Level Rise and Climate Science Program in Coastal Virginia

Sally Ann Sims
Posted on: 10/13/2021 - Updated on: 12/03/2021

Posted by

Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

The Sea Level Rise and Climate Science (SLRCS) Program at the Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience at Old Dominion University (ODU) is working to provide science and decision-support tools to build climate resilience in coastal Virginia and along the East Coast. The SLRCS program has evolved from a more traditional scientific research institute to one that also facilitates stakeholder-driven work on community resilience building.


The SLRCS Program was created due to rising concerns about the impacts of severe storms on coastal Virginia. In particular, in 2009, the remnants of Hurricane Ida coalesced into a nor’easter that affected the Mid-Atlantic Coast, giving the storm the name Hurricane Nor-Ida. ODU’s Oceanography Department took the lead, initiating the Climate Change Sea Level Rise Initiative. Program staff began deploying sea level rise and ocean observing systems and convened multiple stakeholders, including U.S. Navy and other federal entities as well as state and city representatives, to discuss potential solutions.

Over the long-term, the SLRCS program seeks to address three fundamental challenges:

  1. Sea Level and Climate Interactions: To understand what controls sea level rise and how observations and modeling can be refined to provide practical planning and policy-relevant information as well as find ways to improve regional sea level rise predictability.
  2. Coastal Management and Sea Level: To understand the future impacts of sea level rise as well as learn how to best predict future shoreline erosion, landform evolution, loss of infrastructure, and natural resources.
  3. Integrated and Interdisciplinary Research: Discover and pursue relevant cross-cutting, integrated opportunities to incorporate scientific information on sea level and climate change into coastal planning and adaptation.


The SLRCS program focus areas include sea level rise, storm surge, flooding, and precipitation changes. The program uses several strategies to address its core focus areas:

  • Conduct periodic reviews of the state of knowledge of sea level rise and climate change, identify research gaps, and seek opportunities to collaborate with fellow scientific parties. An example of this approach is a rapid assessment of sea level rise vulnerability for the cargo terminals, including large cranes, at the Port of Virginia. Using the same methodology, the program conducted a similar study comparing the four largest ports on the East Coast, which comprises 16 terminals or 90% of East Coast cargo facilities. This project represents a national-scale assessment of vulnerability between and within ports, which helps raise the profile of transportation and shipping sectors’ vulnerability to sea level rise.
  • Advise on the use of situational, remote, and other monitoring systems of sea level changes. The program currently assists private companies, cities, and other entities that are looking to address this issue at the local level. However, going forward, the Commonwealth of Virginia will not be able to rely on a decentralized network because of the large population and extent of economic and ecological assets in the coastal zone. Consequently, state and larger-scale coordination is need. The Institute expects that the Commonwealth of Virginia may elect to upgrade its sea level rise water level sensors, flood models, and decision support systems to meet this challenge.
  • Encourage the use and improvement state-of-the-art scientific data, models, and predictive analytics for sea level and climate impacts. The Institute conducts database upgrades, modeling, and predictive analytics for local jurisdictions and federal agencies, such as the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Defense (i.e. military bases in Virginia), and the Langley Research Center. There is a widespread need among federal agency staff for training to maintain and update their data systems.
  • Facilitate the assessment of impacts on coastal communities and ecosystem resources in other program areas, including social systems. This is a key area of focus for the program going forward, including community vulnerability assessment work that incorporates ocean and storm surge modeling. There is a heightened focus now on expanding beyond natural systems to also include built environments, social systems, and health dimensions. These projects involve developing stakeholder-friendly maps and decision-making tools.
  • Advance the education and training of scientists, practitioners, and managers using sea level and climate data and information. The SLRSC program supports seminars and provides earth science training for faculty to use GIS data and technology, including how to make Story Maps. The SLRSC program is also involved in climate literacy initiatives.

Outcomes and Conclusions

The SLRCS program has had success in its roles so far. Looking ahead, the program is focusing on increasing organizational capacity and in finding the right projects that intersect the issues of climate change, particularly in the 2050–2080 timeframe. There will be a need to consider topics beyond flooding, including forest and marsh habitats for carbon sequestration and flooding reduction as well as the intersection with social issues, such as public health, access to community facilities, and local economic impacts. Over the longer term, the program expects to address the larger issues associated with climate migration away from the coast.

The Institute has expanded its role in the field, serving as a research center, network builder, information mentoring group for faculty and staff, convener of collaborative initiatives, and supporter of adaptation initiatives in the region, such as the Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum. Challenges are primarily organizational, including building capacity (including administrative support), providing faculty support for community engagement initiatives, developing meaningful evaluation metrics, and determining the best ways to deploy climate experts in multiple natural, physical, and social science academic departments.


Sims, S.A. (2021). Sea Level Rise and Climate Science Program in Coastal Virginia [Case study of a project of the Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience at Old Dominion University]. Product of EcoAdapt’s State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: (Last updated October 2021)

Project Contact

Tom Allen
Program Head for Sea Level Rise and Climate Science
Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience
Old Dominion University
[email protected]


Effort Stage
Scale of Project
Sector Addressed
Habitat/Biome Type
Target Climate Changes and Impacts

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