According to the EPA and the research done by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the state’s wetlands are particularly vulnerable to climate change. The state is home to around one million acres of wetlands. Most of Virginia’s wetlands are in the form of swamps (forested wetlands). A quarter of the state’s wetlands are tidal – areas where the sea meets the land, and the land is flooded from time to time by sea-water. The rest is non-tidal. Over half the non-tidal wetlands are located in the state’s Urban Crescent: this is the area between Norfolk and Washington D.C., crisscrossed by the many river systems.
There are several environmental issues that are facing these wetlands and the wildlife that inhabit them.
Potential Impact of Climate Change on Life in Coastal Virginia
One of the most glaring effects of climate change – the rise of sea level – could lead to flooding of low-lying coastal towns and marshes along the state’s Atlantic coast. Sea level at Newport News is already rising by 12 inches each year. The tidal marshes along the coasts – especially in the estuarine waters around Chesapeake Bay – are home to many birds and fish that depend on the marsh for shelter and food. These could be affected by rising sea levels.
Bluefish, striped bass, summer flounder, sea trout and other fish depend on the marshes for food and shelter. Rockfish, several species of crabs and other species feed on bugs and marine organisms that further feed in the marshes. Diamondback terrapin nest on the beaches.
Birds like the bald eagle, great blue heron, snowy egret and the American black duck live in the marshes. Several shore birds like plovers and sandpipers forage here for food. Migratory geese and ducks also come here in the winter. The salt marshes along Chesapeake Bay and the highly vulnerable North Landing River and Back Bay may not be able to capture floating sediments and build land at a rate fast enough to counter rising sea levels.
Environmental Issues Facing Non-Tidal Wetlands
Some of Virginia’s freshwater wetlands are already facing the impact of rise in salt water levels, partly caused by activities like dredging. Dredging can speed up a river, but it makes it dangerously vulnerable to flooding. Saltwater intrusion into the tributaries of the York River has already killed off many trees.
Other activities like draining, land clearing, excavating, water withdrawal and ditching without regulation can impose undue pressure on surface water and groundwater. Then there is the fact that a warmer climate could increase runoff and rainfall, leading to more erosion and contamination from mining, urban and agricultural areas. The Shenandoah river is polluted and so is the James river; these rivers are already facing issues with dumping of toxic chemicals.
Of course, human life in coastal Virginia would also be affected by the rise in sea levels. Effects will include the negative impact on fisheries and livelihood, saltwater contamination of drinking water, less clearance under bridges, damage of low-lying roads, and greater vulnerability to storms and flooding of low-lying habitations like Hampton Roads.
All of these are reason enough for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, VIMS and other organizations to sit up and take notice of Virginia’s wetlands and its vulnerabilities.