Letters to the Editor

Threat of Flooding Focuses Attention on Climate Change

October 22, 2012

To the Editor:

As you pointed out in "Colleges' Response to Climate Change: Lukewarm at Best" (The Chronicle, September 10), changing weather patterns and global warming seem to be exposing institutions of higher education to new threats from drought or flooding. In fact, climate change and sea-level rise present many universities with dual challenges in resource management. How do we prioritize infrastructure projects in order to promote and protect critical operations from rising water and other calamities? And how do we want our teachers and researchers to explore climate change and its ramifications?

The 126 buildings on Old Dominion University's 251-acre campus in Norfolk, Va., lie on a flat tract between two tidal rivers, making us one of the larger research-intensive institutions in the country to be situated only a few feet above sea level. The entire southeastern Virginia waterfront, in fact, has been identified by federal officials and independent scientists as particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. This is due not only to warming oceans and shifting currents attributed to climate change but also to land subsidence in the region.

But before institutions—as well as governments and businesses of all sizes—can decide on adaptation/mitigation strategies, we need advice from scientists, engineers, and other experts about how the threats will evolve over the century. Furthermore, taxpayer-supported institutions such as Old Dominion have a vested interest in educating the public about the problems posed by climate change and the public-policy response that is necessary.

With the needs of our university and our region in mind, we decided more than two years ago to launch what has come to be known as the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative. The mission: helping coastal urban areas to identify climate-related risks and mitigate damages.

The first faculty members I consulted were a physical oceanographer and an economist, but it quickly became apparent to us that the initiative should recruit experts from all six of our colleges—in sciences, health sciences, engineering, business, education, and arts and letters.

For many years our oceanographers, marine biologists, coastal engineers, and maritime-business faculty members have been conducting research related to climate change. Polar-ice melting, coral bleaching, and coastal erosion are among their research focuses. We wanted these experts on board for the initiative, but we also wanted to bolster it by including faculty members in risk management, modeling and simulation, psychology, communications, political science, environmental sciences, public health, and education. In addition, we wanted to involve engineers from businesses and local governments in southeastern Virginia, as well as those from the U.S. Navy and NASA, which have a prominent presence in the region.

We built momentum through a series of brainstorming sessions for faculty members, two major regional engineering workshops, and meetings with officials of Norfolk and Virginia Beach and a district planning commission. We also began an effort to incorporate climate change into the curriculum, offered well-attended public lectures on sea-level rise by the Navy's top oceanographer and an international insurance executive, made several faculty hires to expand expertise in climate-change-related fields, and awarded seed grants totaling $300,000 to faculty research teams that proposed unique ways to support the initiative's mission.

The interdisciplinary nature of the research projects that our initiative has helped to launch is particularly appealing to us because we believe only a broad response by academics, public officials, and business leaders can bring about broad public understanding of climate-change science and help forge consensus about investments in adaptation/mitigation projects. In fact, we have found that many of our faculty members are energized by the prospect of teaming up to study the complex system of climate-change-related issues that a coastal metropolis faces. Everyone knows there are no easy answers, and we believe that government and industry leaders will appreciate the decision-making assistance that academic research can give them.

John R. Broderick
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, Va.