Will Baker: Chesapeake already feeling significant impacts from climate change

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) President Will Baker told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee today that the Chesapeake Bay already is suffering the impacts of climate change.

"The Bay's trophy rockfish are struggling to find oxygen in warming waters. Species at the southern end of their range, like soft shelled clams and eelgrass, are being stressed by warmer waters that eventually could eliminate them from the Chesapeake Bay," Baker said. "Climate change is not just something in the Chesapeake Bay's future."

Baker was a speaker at the Committee's forum, "Climate Change at the Water's Edge" at Alumni Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. The forum focused on local impacts of climate change.

Baker said warming water, rising water levels, and increased frequency and intensity of storms are the primary impacts of climate change on the Bay. These impacts are felt not only by aquatic life in the Bay, but often by communities and economies already hard hit by water pollution.

Scientists have documented a warming trend of about 1 degree C or nearly 2 degree F since the 1960s in the Bay. They predict warming waters to be between 2 degree C and 5 degree C by 2070 to 2099. This warming trend is due to the slow absorption of the extra heat from the warming atmosphere, caused by climate change. 

With more than 11,000 miles of coastline, much of the Chesapeake Bay area, including some large population centers, lies very close to water level. Much of that land already is sinking—due to geological processes that started during the last ice age. As a result, rising sea levels are taking a particularly dramatic toll around the Chesapeake.

Many scientists estimate, conservatively, that seas will rise between 8 inches and 2 feet by the end of this century.

"We are losing Tangier Island, Smith Island, and many other low-lying lands around the Bay," Baker said. "Thousands of acres of environmentally-critical tidal wetlands are now unable to trap sediments fast enough to keep pace with rising water levels."

To make matters worse, increasingly intense storms, due to the increased and accelerated hydrological cycle caused by warming atmospheric and water temperatures, produce storm surges that compound the impacts of inexorably rising Bay waters.

"We expect to see more erosion of developed shorelines and saltwater getting into drinking water aquifers," Baker said. "And we expect impacts not only on the Eastern Shore and the imperiled communities on Smith and Tangier Islands, but also here in Annapolis and in other places such as Hampton Roads, Baltimore, Alexandria, and the Nation's Capital itself."

Baker said the multi-state effort to clean up the Bay—the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—will not only reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution, but also will help mitigate the effects of the changing climate. Planting winter "cover" crops, for instance, not only soaks up excess nutrient pollution, it also can sequester carbon. "Green infrastructure" in city and suburban drainage areas can trap polluted runoff, and also mitigate flooding, sequester carbon, and reduce thermal pollution. Restored oyster reefs can enhance coastal resilience to climate change by providing storm and flood protection.

Download Will Baker's testimony

CBF Investigative Report: Climate Change and the Chesapeake Bay: Challenges, Impacts, and the Multiple Benefits of Agricultural Conservation Work

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