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Entirely New Coastal Ecosystem

Virginia Institute of Marine Science professor talks about the causes and effects of climate change during Virginia Coastal Policy Center speaker series.

Carl Hershner discusses the causes and effects of climate change in his First Tuesday talk at the Muscarelle Museum. ©Jesse Granger/VASG

Carl Hershner discusses the causes and effects of climate change in his First Tuesday talk at the Muscarelle Museum. ©Jesse Granger/VASG

VIMS Professor Gets Real About Climate Change in VCPC’s Speaker Series

By VCPC Correspondent Jesse Granger

The series of talks leading up to the Virginia Coastal Policy Center’s (VCPC) annual conference began the first Tuesday of September with Carl Hershner, Director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management and Associate Professor of Marine Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. His presentation focused on the causes and effects of climate change. The lecture was held in the Muscarelle Museum of Art on William and Mary’s campus amidst a collection of ocean and sailboat paintings that provided the perfect backdrop to Hershner’s talk.

What stood out about the presentation was that it wasn’t a discussion of how society can reverse the dramatic changes that have occurred because of climate change.

“Inevitably when we start discussing climate change people want to argue about who is responsible and whether or not there is something we should be doing,” said Hershner. “But that’s not what I want to talk about.” Instead his speech approached climate change with a blunt realism. He asserted that certain parts of the coastal environment that existed in the past will simply never come about again.

“We are dealing with an entirely new ecosystem,” Hershner exclaimed. “And many of the organisms that lived here before cannot and will not be able to return.” Despite delivering this harsh reality, his talk also informed the audience about ways in which certain parts of the ecosystem can still be preserved.

“I’m all about adaptation. I want to focus on the things that we have seen happening, and what we are going to have to do in the short term in order to continue our style of life,” he explained.

Hershner identified the main drivers of climate change, and said that these human and natural forces have been causing documented cases of rising sea levels, changing storm and precipitation patterns, and dramatic alterations in the organisms that make up Virginia’s coastal environment. And coming changes can be predicted with daunting foresight, but the reality depends on what society does in the next few decades.

Models predict global sea level will rise anywhere between two meters and 20 centimeters in the next 84 years. Source: Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment, NOAA (2012).

Models predict global sea level will rise anywhere between two meters and 20 centimeters in the next 84 years. Source: Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment, NOAA (2012).

Hershner ended his lecture by discussing the improvements we have already made, and the challenges we still face in order to preserve Virginia’s coastal ecosystem. Ironically he praised Virginia’s wastewater treatment plants as the best example of our ability to adapt. Wastewater was once one of the top contributors of pollutants in the Bay, but thanks to the remarkable work that has been put into upgrading these facilities, the treatment plants in Southeastern Virginia now produce water that is better in quality than tap or even bottled water.

“But,” added Hershner, “other sources of pollutants, like agriculture, still evade us.”

There are so many factors that affect where, and how much, pollution and nutrients are entering the system. Trying to get that load down to a manageable and sustainable level is a real challenge society must face.

The next two First Tuesday lectures will expand upon Hershner’s presentation by discussing the watershed implementation practices, and steps that are being put in place in order to reach current sustainability goals.

An extension partner of Virginia Sea Grant, VCPC at William & Mary Law School provides policy and legal analysis to its partners on coastal resource and community issues in its mission to educate and train the future lawyers and leaders of tomorrow.