The Eastern Shore of Virginia: Strategies for Adapting to Climate Change

Posted on: 11/28/2016 -

Posted by

Jose Gonzalez



The Eastern Shore is no stranger to the vagaries of climate and the inherent hazards associated with living in a dynamic coastal environment. However, our growing body of knowledge about global climate change strongly indicates that the rates of change and scale of impact will be greater in intensity and severity than ever before. Based on recent reports we can expect sea levels to rise at an accelerated rate of at least a meter or more by 2100 and cause increased coastal flooding, shoreline erosion and inundation mainland areas. In addition, we can expect precipitation extremes and increasing frequency of droughts. While the Eastern Shore benefits from more natural resiliency due to the high proportion of coastal wetlands, barrier islands and mainland edge protected by The Nature Conservancy and other public agencies, the specter of global climate change nevertheless renders the Eastern Shore vulnerable to dramatic changes over the next century. There is ample opportunity to begin planning now for the future to effectively build on the natural resiliency of this unique place and adapt to the coming changes.

Toward this end, The Nature Conservancy launched a climate change adaptation project for the Eastern Shore of Virginia to more specifically characterize the current understanding of potential ecological effects due to climate change through an expert workshop, literature review and assessment of resource vulnerability using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data. In addition, the Conservancy, in collaboration with partners and the local community, set out to use this understanding to inform the identification of strategic actions that will enhance resilience and facilitate adaptation of this globally important and productive coastal area upon which local communities and wildlife depend. To accomplish the latter, the Conservancy hosted the Eastern Shore Climate Change Adaptation Strategies Workshop in August 2010. Workshop participants included a range of industries and communities that will be affected by sealevel rise and other climate change effects, including local representatives from aquaculture, agriculture, local government and community organizations.

The shared vision for adapting the Eastern Shore to effects of climate change that emerged from the workshop was as follows:

  • Coastal resources migrate and remain productive as sea-level rises
  • Planned, livable and safe communities are resilient to climate change
  • Adequate freshwater resources exist for drinking, agriculture, ecosystem function, and businesses
  • The shore supports stable, natural resource based businesses from agriculture and aquaculture to science and spaceflight
  • Wildlife, birds, fisheries and people thrive

Participants agreed on five priority climate change adaptation strategies to pursue in the future:

  1. Local Adaptation Planning: Review county comprehensive plans and hazard mitigation plans to incorporate the current and predicted effects of sea-level rise and coastal flooding using vulnerability assessment derived from LiDAR and best available scientific data.
  2. Shoreline Management: Develop shoreline management plans for all Eastern Shore stream reaches in consultation with VIMS that are incorporated into county comprehensive plans per the new statewide statutory requirement, and promote new general permit for living shorelines with land owners through education and demonstration projects.
  3. Restoration and Protection of Natural Systems: Work with public and private partners to enhance climate change adaption by species, habitats and ecological systems through expansion and restoration of a resilient, productive and connected network of protected lands that capture habitat gradients and transition zones from sub-tidal coastal bays to upland forests across the Eastern Shore of Virginia landscape.
  4. Groundwater Management: Enhance and maintain groundwater recharge zone along Highway 13 corridor based on full consideration of climate change effects on water supply and demand projections.
  5. Education and Outreach: Establish Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Working Group to promote political will by developing education and outreach programs for the public and helping to facilitate the implementation of key adaptation strategies by Accomack and Northampton counties.

While many challenges are associated with these strategies, there are an equal number of emerging opportunities—in terms of information and action--that Eastern Shore localities and stakeholders can take advantage to prepare citizens and natural systems to better adapt to climate change. These include:

  • The forthcoming LiDAR vulnerability assessments, which will greatly inform hazard mitigation planning, county comprehensive planning, and land use policy
  • The new shoreline management legislation that requires shoreline management plans and living shoreline general permit regulation for coastal localities
  • Eastern Shore Hazard Mitigation Plans revision
  • Accomack and Northampton Counties’ Comprehensive Plan reviews and updates
  • Accomack and Northampton Counties’ Water Supply Plan reviews
  • Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program’s Special Area Management Plan process.
  • Potential boundary expansion of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge to adapt to sea-level rise through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan
  • Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program’s funding of the Seaside Coastal Partnership along with a pending funding request to the NOAA Community Partnership Grant program continue restoring oysters and eelgrass in the coastal bays

To take full advantage of these opportunities, many workshop participants have agreed to serve on the Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Working Group. With better understanding of climate change effects comes the realization that those changes will profoundly affect all people who live here, regardless of age, occupation or neighborhood. Livelihoods will be jeopardized, infrastructure will be threatened and human health and safety will be at greater risk. A knowledgeable citizenry and informed decisionmaking based on the most realistic assessment of risk to the community will be the foundation future efforts. There is clear consensus by the working group that much can be done to manage and minimize disruptions to this community, and the time to take action is now.

Authors on CAKE

The Nature Conservancy