A girl plays in a flooded Norfolk street as Hurricane Sandy approaches in 2012. Rich-Joseph Facun/Reuters

The country's first institute of adaptation science will help Norfolk, Virginia, deal with its steadily rising waters.

Even for Americans who accept the science of climate change, the connection between cause and effect can be opaque. (Wasn't more ice supposed to be a good thing?)

Around Norfolk, Virginia, there is little room for misunderstanding. This time of year, the streets flood every month. The city, like Miami Beach further south, is one of the first American communities to feel the effects of sea-level rise on a regular basis. The sea is rising faster here than anywhere else on the East Coast, partly because the land is sinking at the same time.

Not coincidentally, Norfolk is now home to the nation's first academic institution of adaptation science. Established last summer by Old Dominion University, the Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute (MARI) represents a shift in climate thinking. The question is no longer just how we can stop or slow climate change—it's how we can live with it.

Old Dominion has been involved in local climate change efforts through its Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative since 2010. But Hans-Peter Plag, the German scientist who leads MARI, says the focus is now squarely on solutions and practice. MARI will scrutinize crucial local systems such as food, water, power, communications, transportation, and public health, and the resilience of the social fabric when stressed by climate impacts.

"We do research because we know there is someone waiting for the knowledge to come," Plag says. MARI's multidisciplinary staff will meet with local engineers, planners, and public health officials, find out what they need, and help them translate academic expertise into real-world solutions.

Newly reclaimed wetlands in a flood-prone Norfolk neighborhood, one local adaptation measure (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Improving communications between politicians, citizens, and academic institutions—a notable shortcoming of much climate advocacy—is at the fore of MARI's mission.

Michelle Covi, the institute's director of outreach, seems nonplussed by the field's poor record in this department. "Science can't solve the political issue," she says frankly. The immediacy of the threat in Norfolk will take care of that.

"With sea-level rise, we can often talk about it happening ... [but here] we can observe it happening," notes Covi, who previously worked in coastal-hazard outreach in North Carolina and as an environmental educator in Illinois. "Especially in the Hampton Roads area, people know that it's different. The flooding patterns have changed and they're aware of it." Last year, the city council even required new buildings to be raised three feet above flood level.

In a sense, the discussion around Norfolk is almost apolitical—there's no need to talk about causes, or even use the phrase "climate change." MARI's solutions take for granted that there will be no international political deal to avert the crisis.

Pessimism? In the waterlogged streets of Hampton Roads, MARI's doctrine of "practice-relevant knowledge" looks more like realism. This is a metropolitan area of 1.6 million people, with one of the country's busiest ports and a big military presence. Retreat is not a palatable option.  

For example, one of MARI's responsibilities (inherited from its predecessor organization) is supervising a kind of regional colloquium for officials and planners. It's an opportunity for towns to trade stories, exchange wisdom, and discuss common problems, like how to help residents parse changes to flood insurance policies.

Officials from the region have barely had a chance to see the new institute at work. But they lauded ODU's efforts to integrate its research in local affairs. Having an academic partner in climate preparedness, says Ben McFarlane, a senior planner for the region, has been an "absolutely critical component."

Being an apostle of adaptation can be politically hazardous, though, because there's a lot of money at stake. "Real estate is one of those tricky areas," Covi says. If a property has been used as a meth lab, or has defective drywall, or is beneath a flight path, a realtor must make a disclosure to potential buyers. That's not the case if a property has recently flooded, Covi points out.

More than 17,000 properties in Norfolk, amounting to 34 percent of the tax base, are in high-risk flood plains. New buyers have started to think twice about waterfront property. There are fears that climate-change awareness will scare away commerce and industry as well.

Covi has a more sanguine attitude towards publicizing the risks. "Maybe, if we're prepared, then this is a place to move," she says. "We're working on it, versus a place that's putting its head in the sand."

Or, as she put it on her blog, quoting The Hobbit: "It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him."

About the Author

Henry Grabar

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.   

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