- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

The Bush administration has set aside its skepticism about global warming to begin planning for the possibility that major Washington-area infrastructure, including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, could be inundated by rising seawaters.

The U.S. Capitol and Lincoln Memorial also could be flooded frequently in a global-warming scenario described in a new study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

The study anticipates a 12-inch rise in sea level along the Atlantic coast by 2050 if the ice caps continue to melt from a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It includes maps of how the Washington area could be affected.

The study does not represent a policy change by the Bush administration, but is merely an attempt to plan ahead, said Ian Grossman, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration.

“The purpose of this study is to say that when you’re making decisions about transportation planning, then issues of the impact of climate change and other environmental factors need to be a consideration,” Mr. Grossman said.

The study warns that about 823,075 acres in Maryland would be “impacted by regular inundation or at-risk” by 2100 unless seawalls or other infrastructure are built to protect them from a roughly 19-inch rise in water levels. Rail lines and airports would have to be moved and some streets abandoned if they are not protected.

Regular inundation means flooding either permanently or nearly any time there is significant rainfall. At-risk refers primarily to storm surge.

“Many of the low-lying railroads, tunnels, ports, runways and roads are already vulnerable to flooding,” the report said. “A rising sea level will only exacerbate the situation by causing more frequent and more serious problems as well as introducing problems to infrastructure not previously affected by these factors.”

Airports in the Washington, New York City and Boston areas are examples, the study said. Other examples include ports all along the U.S. coastline and tunnels between New Jersey and Manhattan Island.

“Some of these transportation lines, if not protected, may be permanently flooded,” said the study, which was written by Fairfax environmental consulting firm ICF International for the DOT.

A map accompanying the report indicates regular flooding is likely all along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

The study was based on rising water-level estimates from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Since 1979, the arctic polar ice cap has shrunk from 2.78 million square miles during its summertime low to 1.65 million miles last summer, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The DOT report primarily considered the effect on roadways, airports, sea ports and rail lines.

About 53 percent of the U.S. population lives in “coastal counties,” where shorelines are eroding at the rate of one to four feet per year, the study said.

A 2000 Federal Emergency Management Agency report “estimated that about a quarter of homes and other structures within 500 feet of the U.S. coastline and Great Lakes shorelines will be overtaken by erosion during the next 60 years.”

Rising waters are more of an added expense in protecting land and infrastructure than a doomsday scenario, said Phillip Arkin, deputy director of the University of Maryland’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, which studies climate change.

“Any place where the terrain is kind of flat or low lying, the obvious thing to do is put up a seawall or raise the seawall that is already there,” Mr. Arkin said. “It’s a lot easier to do that than it is to move a road or move a whole community.”

The Netherlands, which reclaimed much of its land from the North Atlantic, is an example of how high waters can be controlled, he said.

Good places for seawalls would be along the Potomac River, the lower part of the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay, he said.

The long shoreline of the Delmarva Peninsula would be difficult to protect, making it likely that global warming would convert the low-lying land from mostly farmland to wetlands, he said.

Despite satellite evidence of shrinking ice caps, some groups say climate-change predictions are exaggerated.

“They are all based on highly speculative computer models,” said Myron Ebell, director of global-warming policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit public policy foundation based in Washington.

“Sea levels have been rising at pretty much the same rate since they started to keep records in the early 19th century,” he said. “There’s nothing new in sea levels rising and there’s nothing new to indicate the rate of sea-level rise will increase.”

Environmentalists described the study as useful but far short of the steps the Bush administration must take to combat global warming.

The administration has “stopped short of what we think needs to be done,” said Tony Kreindler, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, a Washington advocacy group. “The real test for this administration will be whether they are willing to support a cap on emissions.”

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