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Dear Colleague Letters

December 7, 2011

Dear Colleague,

A year ago, Old Dominion University launched the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative to engage the university's experts and the region's leaders in a broad study of how global warming could affect our economy, housing, ports and infrastructure.

Under the direction of Larry Atkinson, Slover Professor of Oceanography, we have seen this initiative branch out in multiple directions, taking advantage of research and scholarship in all six ODU colleges. I can report that the foundation is now in place for a program of research, education and leadership to address the challenges a coastal metropolis such as ours can expect from sea level rise and other climate-related change.

As Dr. Atkinson has told me, measurements from Sewells Point on the lower Chesapeake Bay since 1927 show that the sea level has been rising about 1.7 inches per decade, and climate scientists say it is likely the rate will increase in the decades to come. Seas are rising because the water is warming (and expanding), land ice is melting and, locally, we are sinking. Prevailing scientific evidence today projects the sea level to go up by a least 2 feet by century's end, and possibly by 5 feet or more. Government and insurance company studies have identified Hampton Roads as a region among the top 30 in the world most vulnerable to property and infrastructure losses from sea level rise.

Even if the sea level rise here is no more than 2 feet by 2100, we must begin now to plan for a steady rise of waters and worsening flooding.

Our initiative has identified 60 faculty members at ODU with expertise that can be put to use in formulating this response. Many of these come from fields such as oceanography, marine science, environmental health, botany and coastal engineering in which ODU has a rich history of fundamental research related to climate change. Over the past year we have sought to expand that research to other fields, and to establish ODU as a leader in coastal urban adaptation to sea level rise and climate change.

We already have taken concrete steps to promote multidisciplinary research in support of the initiative, none more important than the $165,000 in project startup grants that the Office of Research awarded earlier this year. I'd like to extend a special thank you to longtime ODU supporters Doug and Patricia Perry, whose gift established the Perry Fund for the Study of Critical Issues and provided the funding for these startup grants.

Furthermore, ODU's six colleges are backing the initiative with special seminars, curriculum revisions and faculty-hiring decisions.

Here are the highlights of the initiative's first year:

  • A study is under way designed to generate a social marketing model that will help inform the public about climate science and engage a broad segment of the population in environmental-resiliency policymaking. This project team includes faculty members Maura Hametz in history, Poornima Madhavan in psychology, Leona Tam in marketing and Cynthia Tomovic in STEM education.
  • A team of researchers at ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) is developing a rolling simulation of how sea level rise in the future will affect 17 different interconnected sectors - from transportation, to agriculture, to population, to access to health facilities. The simulation, which accesses existing data on things such as sea rise forecasts and population migration, can act as a decision-making tool for local leaders, one that incorporates interconnected data generated by the interaction between the facets of the simulation. Team members are Saikou Diallo, Jose Padilla and Peter Foytik.
  • Science Alliance Live, an outreach effort aimed at children, has been launched by a project team from communication and theatre arts, oceanography and education. In November, the debut event of the alliance featured two short stage plays and Web-based games designed to educate youngsters about climate science. This effort is led by Jenifer Alonzo in theatre arts and Victoria Hill in oceanography, and also includes Fred Dobbs in oceanography, Amy Adcock and Ginger Watson in STEM education, and Steven Pullen in theatre arts.
  • A project headed by modeling and simulation experts from VMASC, ODU political scientists and an analyst from a private environmental communications company is looking at how governments should prioritize cleanups of contaminated coastal land sites before rising waters can spread the pollution. A primary goal is to make sure these decisions are made based on health risk, and not on political clout. Team members include Rafael Diaz and Joshua Behr from VMASC, and Hua Liu and visiting instructor Michael Finewood in political science and geography.
  • A project in the planning stages involving a wetlands ecologist and a disease vectors researcher from biological sciences at ODU proposes to study changes in vegetation in Hampton Roads that global warming may bring and the related shifts this may cause in the insect population. Changes in wetland grasses, for example, could help a new species of ticks become established in the region. Frank Day and Holly Gaff from biological sciences are doing this research.
  • A workshop hosted by ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology brought together 30 engineers from area localities, companies and institutions to discuss the kind of research that should be done to help Hampton Roads protect its infrastructure and property from rising seas. More similar technical workshops are planned, the next one being on storm water management. Engineering doctoral student David Pezza was the leader of the initial workshop.
  • Initial activities related to the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative put ODU psychology faculty member Poornima Madhavan on the radar of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Science and Technology Advisory Committee (STAC). Her work on how people make difficult choices - such as whether to make sacrifices now in order to mitigate future environmental damages - won her the first-ever seat on STAC for a psychologist.
  • A public forum planned for the spring will bring Lindene Patton, an executive with Zurich Financial Services, to ODU to discuss how the insurance industry assesses risk and creates new products in reaction to sea level rise and climate change.

I think you will agree that our initiative is off to an impressive start. You can be assured that as the initiative begins its second year, climate change/sea level rise remains a high-priority issue for me.


John R. Broderick