Making sense of senseless sea level scares in Norfolk Virginia – 60% of the rise is from subsidence, the remainder from landfill settling

norfolk_rubber_duckyOne of the problems with so called “science writers” in the mainstream media today is that few of them have the wherewithal and training to do some basic sanity checking. Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post illustrates this lack of competence perfectly in a piece this weekend titled: In Norfolk, evidence of climate change is in the streets at high tide .

You just have to laugh at one of the pictures included as seen above. I’m not sure if the Chrysler Museum (seen in the background) is mocking posited climate change induced sea level rise or preparing for it. But rubber duckies aside, Ms. Montgomery doesn’t seem to have the skills to even investigate the ridiculous claim of over 5 ½ feet of sea level rise by 2100, much less apply a sanity check to it. In her article is this easily challenged statement:

As the city was contemplating that enormous price tag, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) last year delivered more bad news: If current trends hold, VIMS scientists said, by the end of this century, the sea in Norfolk would rise by 5½ feet or more.

The claim is accompanied by this graph and text, which ups the rise to frightening levels based on model projections:

296tidewater[1]The problem is particularly urgent in Norfolk and the rest of Tidewater Virginia — which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has ranked second only to New Orleans in terms of population threatened by sea-level rise — due to a fateful convergence of lousy luck. First, the seas are generally rising as the planet warms. Second, the Gulf Stream is circulating more slowly, causing more water to slosh toward the North Atlantic coast. In 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey declared a 600-mile stretch of coastline, from North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras to Boston, a “sea-level rise hotspot,” with rates increasing at three to four times the global average.

Third, the land around Norfolk is sinking, a phenomenon called “subsidence,” due in part to continuing adjustments in the earth’s crust to the melting of glaciers from the last ice age. Plus, the city is slowly sinking into the crater of a meteor that slammed into the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay 35 million years ago.

Put it all together, as VIMS scientists did when they were asked by the General Assembly to study recurrent flooding in tidewater Virginia, and models suggest tides ranging from 1½ feet to 7½ feet higher by 2100.


Let’s look at some less scary graphs, like this one that should have been included in Ms. Montgomery’s article, but wasn’t:



The Sewell’s Point tide gauge is the closest fully operational one, as apparently NOAA closed the one nearest downtown Norfolk back in 1985:



You’d think that with such a “crisis” looming, they’d have kept that tide gauge operational.

The most important thing to note is that unlike the steeply vertical graph in the WaPo article showing up to 8 feet of projected sea level rise, there is no acceleration visible in either of these two tide gauge graphs. They illustrate the slow, linear, subsidence that Nature has been doing for thousands of years.

So, let’s do the math to see if the data and claims match. We’ll use the worst case value from Sewell’s Point tide gauge of 4.44mm/year, which over the last century measured the actual “business as usual” history of sea level in concert with rising greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. with no “mitigation” done in the last century of measurements.

Their claim is for the “business as usual” scenario: “by the end of this century, the sea in Norfolk would rise by 5½feet or more.”

  1. At the year 2014, there are 86 years left in this century.
  2. 86 years x 4.44 mm/year = 381.84 mm
  3. 381.84 mm = 15.03 inches (conversion here)

Gosh, 15.03 inches is quite a long ways from “5½feet or more”.

As seen in the caption for the scary WaPo graph, the entire premise of Ms. Montgomery’s article is based on projections related to greenhouse gas emissions, with those emissions set to accelerate sea level rise, yet as we see from the tide gauge graphs, even while GHG gases increased in the atmosphere in the last century, there is no visible acceleration, no curve upwards towards anything that would hint at their worst case scenario.

Ms. Montgomery also relies heavily on a single source for her article, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), who seem to be big on modeling, with claims that suggest the entire Ross Sea will be (not might be) ice free by 2100. With certainty like that, no wonder they are freaking out feckless WaPo reporters.

A little Google-Fu might have helped, I wonder if Ms. Montgomery has read this report from VIMS, published in 2010:

Chesapeake Bay Land Subsidence and Sea Level Change An Evaluation of Past and Present Trends and Future Outlook (PDF)

The cover is interesting, as it shows the “lumpiness” of global sea level rise.VIMS_2010_cover

Note that in the image above, the satellite altimetry reports that sea level rise off the coast of Chesapeake Bay is essentially zero. Note the white color and the scale in this image I have prepared from the cover image:


That zero trend for the area suggests there must be other factors as causes of Norfolk’s sea level problems.

I found this part of the report, in the conclusions section, most interesting, note that RSLR stands for “Relative Sea Level Rise”, emphasis mine:

Spatial Comparisons – RSLR rates at all ten bay stations for the 1976-2007 period underscore variability in subsidence rates assuming that the present ASL rise is uniform throughout the Chesapeake Bay area. Given the most likely ASLR rate of 1.8 mm/yr for what may be termed late 20th/early 21st century, inferred subsidence rates vary from -4.00 mm/yr at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, VA, to -1.29 mm/yr at Baltimore, MD (omitting Washington, DC, because of significant serial correlation over 1976-2007). In between these extremes, subsidence rates account for 50-60% of the measured RSLR at water level stations. These findings are in agreement with those of coastal geologists who report evidence of structural faults not only within the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater in the lower bay but in areas further north in the midsection of the bay (R. Berquist, pers. comm.). High RSLR at Lewisetta, VA, is likely due to additional subsidence induced through local faulting.

Future Outlook – Subsidence will clearly remain a problem as it will continue to add to high RSLR rates locally and heighten the risk of flooding from storm tides in the lower Chesapeake Bay as time goes on. Low-lying areas in communities such as Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Hampton and Poquoson are comprised of a patchwork of local areas that are not only vulnerable to storm tides but are experiencing varying rates of subsidence, meaning that some areas within these communities may be facing greater risk than others from global sea level rise going forward. In addition to CORS, other technologies such as airborne LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) will be needed to perform repeated mapping of ground topography to track changes in flood elevation contours with time.

So, VIMS says subsidence accounts for 50-60% of the problem that the Washington Post reports will be acceleration due to climate change, melting of the ice caps, etc.. More importantly, they mention nothing about acceleration due to greenhouse gas emissions in that 2010 report. In fact, in the conclusions they say they can’t find any evidence of acceleration of sea level rise, and if it is there, it would be hard to detect, emphasis mine:

Thus, if an absolute sea level (ASL) rate increase of 0.10 mm/yr were to be added in the next decade, its detection as a significant change would be unlikely even if decadal variability were accounted for. An increase on the order of 0.5 mm/yr may be required for a statistical significant acceleration to be confirmed in the years ahead. Meanwhile, time-segment comparisons that account for decadal variability are very likely to witness the smaller changes leading up to it, if indeed an acceleration does develop at this scale.

The problem is that when Norfolk was founded in August 1682, they chose a location close to the sea, for trade purposes, nearly inside of an impact crater with bedrock fractures than has been historically subsiding since the initial impact 35 million years ago.




Of course they had no idea at the time, and up until the 20th century city leaders probably had no idea of the situation their city was in. Worse, as indicated by this NYT article, filled marshlands are returned to their normal state:

Like many other cities, Norfolk was built on filled-in marsh. Now that fill is settling and compacting. In addition, the city is in an area where significant natural sinking of land is occurring.

Have a look at this Google earth image where WaPo was taking photos, the Chrysler Museum of Art (seen with the rubber duck in the WaPo photo) is clearly marked. It sure looks like fill to me. Note the arrows I added. That is a man-made fill structure.


With the satellite altimetry from the 2010 VIMS report showing essentially a zero sea level rise in the area, it seems to me that nearly all of the issue in Norfolk can be attributed to subsidence from the crater impact fractures, and subsidence from man-made landfill settling where there was originally marshland.

But surely we can discount all that and just blame “climate change” on a wholesale level and add some scary graphs to scare the bejeesus out of readers like the hapless Ms. Montgomery has done. After all, if such projections are to be believed, human greenhouse gas emissions are far more powerful than anything Nature can throw at us.

It just seems easier and more profitable to blame climate change than a poor choice of location because as we’ve seen time and again, by using those magic words, an entire banquet of Federal assistance is spread before them.


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good Lord….there’s a hole off Maine!

Jeff L

Once again, real climate science & geology inextricably intertwined !
Shocking how few understand the difference between relative & absolute sea level change , which pretty much geology 101


I sent Lori a link to this post, along with a few other reporters.

Rud Istvan

Who wants to bet whether the WaPo will issue a correction?


I shouldn’t be too difficult to educate the public about the differences between sea levels rising and land sinking. In the future, these long science posts could simply be replaced with. “Norfolk is sinking,” or “Maldives are sinking.”


This “journalist” was educated to be this way. Probably from someone like the professor whose twittering was reviewed over at Climate Resistance:


And in the future, boats won’t sink — the sea will rise until even the greatest, strongest and most powerful are submerged. Man the lifeboats. Women and children first!

Surely subsidence is caused by climate change? (Please don’t take this seriously!)


“One of the problems with so called “science writers” in the mainstream media today is that few of them have the wherewithal and training to do some basic sanity checking.”
From her Wapo bio page:
“Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy”
Those two mesh perfectly, the latter forever disqualifying her from participation in any commentary on any science other than the so-called “science” of economics where a vanishingly low standard of confirmation of the validity of an argument is accepted as the standard.


I had to degauss my monitor after reading that fetid article.
And it’s an LCD monitor ;^)

Bill Illis

There are 4 GPS stations surrounding the southern end of Chesapeake Bay which have been active long enough to get a good signal of the land movement.
Subsidence ranges from -1.95 mms/year to -3.82 mms/year in these stations.
As one moves up the Bay to the Washington region, the subsidence rate falls to -0.81 mms/year.

George Turner

Factors like this are of great concern to the naval bases in Virginia. A lot of our older ships were built with their waterline carefully set to the earlier period’s sea-level, and as the sea level rises those warships will sit dangerously low in the water, threatening both vessel and crew. There are perhaps ways the Navy could refit the ships to operate at the higher sea-levels (which was impractical when they were laid down because they’d have been floating too high to be stable), but it will certainly cost billions of dollars.
George Turner – budding mainstream media science and environment writer.

The last time this happened we got the Chesapeake. Flooding river valleys happens right around there.
/nom nom nom she crab

According to her work bio, Lori covers economics stories as her stock-in-trade.
“Economics, climatology, criminology, …what’s the difference?” .. so says her editor when he/she assigns her the story.
Well, Lori, how does it feel to be a laughingstock? Thank your editor for that.
Didn’t the WA PO shut down its global warming dept about a year ago? As I recall, they
moved their global warming reporter over to the fashion page.

Theo Goodwin

Wonderful article. I love immersion in the facts. I love the local color. I love the global perspective. Finally, what a joy it is to see commonsense science prevail again.

j ferguson

Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt. She has written extensively about every major piece of legislation to pass Congress since 2008, including the TARP bank bailout, the Obama stimulus package and the Democratic overhaul of the health care system. A former foreign correspondent who covered the emerging economies of Central Europe and the war over Kosovo in the late 1990s, Montgomery joined the Post in 2000 to report on local government and politics.

It appears that Ms Montgomery is a bit out of her depth here, so to speak.
Thanks, Anthony, for dealing with this stupid article so thoroughly.


George Turner says:
June 1, 2014 at 10:27 am
Love this.


“It just seems easier and more profitable to blame climate change than a poor choice of location because as we’ve seen time and again, by using those magic words, an entire banquet of Federal assistance is spread before them.”

Mac the Knife

The good news is they won’t have to dredge Norfolk harbor any time soon…. or any time later either!

The writer is acting a little confused here.
Subsidence is the DROPPING of land measured against an absolute reference level: usually due to removal of water from under the land, increase of density of earlier man-made fill getting more compact, or the INCREASE in weight on top of land that, in turn, compresses the soil down tighter.
If a glacier now covering land melts, or reduces in mass, that land which used to be covered moves UP. (If on a coastline, the water is seen to recede. )
A glacier over land someplace else, that melts faster at its tip than it has water/snow/ice added to its top, adds this excess freshwater to the sea, and in turn that increased mass of sea water raises the sea levels everywhere. By a little bit.
The writer here, an eco-illlogical liberal extremist who either cannot communicate, or who can only communicate what she has been told by her minders and feeders, is throwing all these terms into one, as if a melting glacier on top of Virginia were both letting the Virginia soil rise and fall and increase sea level all at the same time.

Gunga Din

Hmmm……how do we blame this subsidence on CO2 and fossil fuels………FRACKING!

In an interview a professor of economics at George Mason University once said that he no long talks to economics reporters because it takes too much of his time to explain basic economics to them before answering the question they originally posed. Now imagine an economics reporter who is writing a story about a technical issue well outside of her area of “expertise”.
She even said that “hurricanes and nor’easters became more frequent and more damaging”. This during the longest spell without a major hurricane making landfall in the US.

Gary Pearse

Lousy structural geological interpretation. It is unlikely the city is sinking because of a 35 million year old crater. Down-warping crenulations from glacial rebound in a region generally rising, and building the city on a marsh is enough. The crater was buried and sedimentary layers deposited on top of it did, long ago, compress the crater breccia (the bottom sedimenary layer over the crater breccia is downslumped and only slightly faulted). Overlying this are thicker layers showing faulting with relatively minor vertical movement that occurs ONLY within the near shore third of the crater. This looks like a “hinge line” zone of faulting related to the differential rebound landward vs seaward and is a very young system (thousands of years old) probably extending along the coast north-south.
Now if you are looking for some real movement, Hudson’s Bay is rebounding 1 metre (over 3 feet) a century, Lake Winnipeg is tilting southward with the north end rising 60cm (2 feet)/century and the south end 20cm per century. In the next millennium, Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba will be connected to the Assiniboine river. Eventually, USA will be the beneficiary of the reverse flow of fresh water to the south.
In my early days as a geological engineer, I planned and managed water well drilling for town and stock watering in the dry southwest corner of Manitoba in 1962. In this work, I found a deep valley in the bedrock down ~300 feet below glacial till and glacial lake clays (Lake Agassiz) that had filled it in. It was a thick graveled buried water course with quartzite, petrified wood and opal which turned out to be the lost former course of the Missouri River when it flowed north to Husdson’s Bay. The map in the third link below: my discovery was the stretch where the dashed blue line crosses the North Dakota-Manitoba border. It was previously believed to flow into adjacent Saskatchewan at this border and then northeastward into Manitoba. I believe my work led to considerable well drilling in North Dakota into this and tributaries of the lost Missouri because of the quality of the aquifer.
Let’s try to keep puny modern Climate Change separate from the real changes these features reveal.


RACookPE1978 says:
June 1, 2014 at 11:15 am
The writer is acting a little confused here.
A number of good points raised including a confused writer.
It is not clear to me what is specifically the cause of subsidence in this case, but if it is due to fill or sub soil consolidating, often the rate tapers off as the deep soil under layers consolidate, it is simple soil mechanics. Extrapolating settlement is ignorance. If the subsidence is due to drawing off underground fresh water, which is a huge problem in Houston area, the subsidence is not likely to stop.
While I am not a soils engineer, it is common that structures settle on soil areas when they are built on fill. Also the deeper soil layers will compact if subject to increased load such as a building. That’s why many structures are built on piling where the sub soil is not stable.
One common approach to solving the problem is to overload the site with mounds of soil beforehand which compacts the sub soil beforehand. In many cases preloading the soil stabilizes the site and significantly controls future settlement.
The reason for flooding is not as simple as Al Gore would like you to believe. The bottom line, sloppy biased reporting by someone who lacks knowledge of the subject.

Mac the Knife

Gary Pearse says:
June 1, 2014 at 11:47 am
Thanks a bunch for the ‘professional perspective’ and links!
Hadn’t heard of the ‘lost Missouri river’ before.
Much appreciated!

Same scare story; different reporter; same scientific rebuttal.
Please see my 2012 American Thinker article:

Berényi Péter

The problem is that when Norfolk was founded in August 1682, they chose a location close to the sea, for trade purposes, inside of an impact crater with bedrock fractures than has been historically subsiding since the initial impact 35 million years ago.

Yes, but if Norfolk slipped into the Chesapeake Bay impact crater due to climate change, it would get covered by seawater completely. On the other hand, restoration of the magnificent Laurentide ice sheet to its natural splendor would save Norfolk, lowering sea level by 400 feet. Some dredging may be needed to keep the harbor accessible though.


Gary Pearse

Mac the Knife says:
June 1, 2014 at 11:57 am
Thanks Mac. My post shows why most older geologists are skeptics of consensus climate change. When hasn’t climate changed? Younger geologists? I’m not sure, but I’m not encouraged by the invasion and co-opting of academia by post-normal progressives. The behavior of some of the lead climate science celebrities shocks me – politically correct science in action.

David Schnare

Those of us in Virginia who actually believe science should inform policy, and who helped advise the climate change commission the last time around, explained exactly the points Anthony raised. Despite that, the commission recommended adaptation based on a 12 foot rise in sea level over the next 100 years.
I’ll try again with the soon to be reformulated commission, but these kinds of commissions are populated by alarmists. Fortunately, the legislature is fiscally responsible and the cities and counties have more pressing problems to deal with. Thus this is just more tempest in a tea pot noise


I think you have this subtitle wrong. Subsidence IS landfill settling. The statement “60% of the sea level rise is from subsidence, the remainder from landfill settling” doesn’t allow for a component of eustatic (absolute) sea level rise which we know has been occurring since the beginning of the current interglacial.
It might make more sense if it had said “60% of the sea level rise is from ABSOLUTE sea level rise, the remainder from landfill settling”…..? But I don’t know if that is the case.
REPLY: Well tough noogies, that’s the title, live with it – Anthony


A story on rising sea levels – and as an example they pick Norfolk?


Yet another case where they have to scare the civilians before they can justify raping their wallets…

Mac the Knife

Gary Pearse says:
June 1, 2014 at 12:15 pm
You’re welcome, Gary. It’s too nice of a day to spend in web space but I will return later to explore the virtual tour of glacial Montana at your link

Navy Bob

Beating a dead horse, but 90% of reporters are Democrats. Obama is announcing his latest CO2 emission-reduction strategy, and reporters are duty-bound to do whatever they can to scare his subjects into accepting it.

[Snip – ridiculous defamatory comment, read the FAQs about Anthony and WUWT here: then resubmit your comment -mod]


George Turner says:
June 1, 2014 at 10:27 am
George…that was excellent
How much faith should we put in data….that shows huge hole in the ocean a few miles to the east


The old “city in a meteor crater” trick, that’s the second time I’ve heard this year.


LearDog says:
June 1, 2014 at 12:42 pm
I think you have this subtitle wrong. Subsidence IS landfill settling. The statement “60% of the sea level rise is from subsidence, the remainder from landfill settling” doesn’t allow for a component of eustatic (absolute) sea level rise which we know has been occurring since the beginning of the current interglacial.
LearDog, you are wrong, subsidence also occurs on existing soil structures if the bearing load increases (like building a city), it is elementary soil mechanics. Why do you think they sometimes drive piling to support a structure?
For large heavy structures that impose a large pressure on the “foundation” a significant portion of existing soil is often removed and replaced. I have seen storage tanks where 25 feet of soil is removed and replaced with other materials and settlement still occurs but much reduced than if the upgrade did not occur.


And what are Ms Montgomery’s qualifications to write about economics?
Meanwhile more madness from the Met:

Bill Illis

The Chesapeake impact crater is 35.5 million years old and is thought to have come from a 5 km asteroid impact (there was least one other 5 km strike within 100,000 years of this time and possibly two). 5 km impacts are pretty rare and only a handful of larger impacts are known about.
But it is such a long time ago, that there really cannot be any remaining settling that needs to be taken into account. If it were even as high as 1 mm/year, that would imply settling of 35 kms over the last 35 million years if it were a straight linear rate over time. Mount Everest is only 8.8 kms high and the rate must have diminished substantially over time.
The rate must be so exceedingly small that it can be ignored.


No comments at the WaPo article? Imagine that.

TomR,Worc,Ma,USA … There are over 800 comments. You can access them from either the top of the article, or from the bottom.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)

andrewmharding said on June 1, 2014 at 10:03 am:

Surely subsidence is caused by climate change? (Please don’t take this seriously!)

Well, those rapidly rising global temperatures are leading to accelerated melting of Arctic permafrost, so it has been said.
Once the dangerous dihydrogen monoxide enters the liquid phase, it will naturally migrate to the level of the local water table as it is squeezed from the sediments, leading to compaction. We have also been warned the contained organic matter will begin decomposing, releasing disastrous quantities of that ultra super treacherous greenhouse gas, methane. As matter that once was in a solid form is removed, sinking of the land is expected.
So yes, climate change would likely be causing subsidence where there is and was permafrost. Which would likely not be gently distributed, leading to suddenly collapsing sinkholes.
Which would be another good reason for would-be tourists-explorers-researchers searching for grizzly and/or polar bears to disappear without a trace. Sinkholes do not respond to pepper spray.


Over several years I’ve been having back and forth with a very liberal warmist friend who believes everything and anything that supports AGW and refuses to acknowledge any doubt. I was going to send him this article but decided to heck with it because his response is always the same liberal propaganda in exactly the same style as Bob Beckel or Juan Williams. Totally fact free arguments.


That pic stopped me dead. I have stood a few feet from there. About 10 years ago, my niece was renting a house right there on Mowbray Arch.
I wonder who Montgomery’s editor is, to let this trash through. The press used to speak truth to power, now, they are just stenographers for power.


It is amazing how much energy people put in to dispute global warming, climate, changes, rising, sea level, pollution causing harm, fast food, etc. but yet no stops to educate the youth of America with your obvious intelligence. I am not downing you, but stating instead of calling someone an idiot just start education the youth. Tell them oh it is a fake story that the waters are rising and a chunk of Antarctica broke off and we do not really need to worry about car pulling to conserve because be will never use up our fossil fuels to heat our houses out gas in our 10-20mpg SUV, mini van or car. Tell them it is okay to build on the shore line because the waters aren’t going to rise but a fraction of an millimeter(oh wait our youth don’t have to know what that is.). I say if you can put this out because you don’t believe in something, then start getting out more and teaching it. Don’t just tag it for google to pick it up get into the schools. Oh, but when you educate the youth show the how you came up with this and where to look for your data, but show them you had several different sources to back up each statement. encourage them to seek the answers and decide for themselves if in a few years cities cities have fell into the water. And that naysayers probably said it wouldn’t happen for several more generations.
Any, yes, I did like the evidence you provided, but you did forget one aspect. The human aspect. I found your site while researching why I am going to have to be ready to move my grandparents final resting spot because the ground has shifted down and is expected to continue. The human aspect is what you lacked in a really calling a person an idiot. So, I wrote this with that aspect and the fact several of our youth today would not have been able to read what you wrote.


Tired says:
June 1, 2014 at 5:37 pm
Just being curious here. What level of education do you think you have received?
You have written many words above, but have communicated nothing, nor even told us what answers you are looking for. Perhaps you only want to show us you have not learned yet how to write a series of comprehensive paragraphs.
To your specific point. (Or at the only specific point that I could find in your words.)
No. You do not have to move your grandparent’s grave, unless your grandparents are buried in ene of the few counties across this land that are pumping too much ground out and thereby lower local land elevations excessively. Once the pumping stops, the subsidence will stop immediately. Been tested worldwide many hundred times. Works every time. There are NO gravesites among the thousands on the eastern shore that are within 15 inches of the high water tides.
If you have taken a science class higher than middle school, I do assume you know what a 1/2 millimeter is. I do assume yo know that a 3 inch rise in 50 years is NOT catastrophic. And, yes, many cities are going up, some others are lowering. Destroying millions of lives by artificially making energy too expensive will NOT change that 15 inches of rise that is “possible” by 2100.