Over Our Heads? Climate Change Threatens A Beleaguered Chesapeake Bay

by Shana Campbell Jones

November 06, 2008

You can never step in the same river twice, the saying goes. According to a new report about how climate change is expected to affect the Chesapeake Bay, that saying may become truer than ever.


In Climate Change and the Chesapeake Bay, a group of scientists and water quality experts found that, because of climate change, “the Bay’s functioning by the end of this century will differ significantly from that observed during the last century….” The report concluded that affects of climate change are already occurring and that “certain consequences” are likely:

  • The mean and variance of sea level will increase, elevating the likelihood of coastal flooding and submergence of estuarine wetlands;
  • Warming and higher CO2 concentrations will promote the growth of harmful algae, such as dinoflagellates;
  • Warming and greater winter-spring streamflow will increase hypoxia;
  • Warming will reduce the prevalence of eelgrass, the Bay’s dominant submerged aquatic vegetation;
  • Increases in CO2 may mitigate some of the negative impacts of climate change on wetlands and eelgrass by stimulating photosynthesis;
  • Warming will alter interactions among trophic levels, potentially favoring warm-water fish and shellfish species in the Bay.

The Oct. 27 report goes on to recommend a series of monitoring and adaptation strategies, as well as noting the need to drastically lower carbon emissions.


Meanwhile, even if the future effects of climate change were not causes for concern, the Bay’s health stagnates. This summer, EPA officials admitted that the 2010 cleanup deadlines, which were set in 2000, will not be met. Frustrated by this lack of progress, a coalition that includes the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland and Virginia watermen associations and several others announced on Oct. 29 that it would sue EPA to force new deadlines and take more aggressive action.


The status quo for the Bay isn’t good enough, and climate change will make things worse. Lawsuits to push action are one solution, but much more must be done. As CPR points out in its white paper, The Clean Water Act: A Blueprint for Reform, the Clean Water Act is a 20th century tool that is ill-equipped to deal with 21st century problems, including climate change. Many reforms are needed. We are barely treading water with the Bay’s health now. Thanks to climate change, we may be over our heads sooner than we think.


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Also from Shana Campbell Jones

Shana Campbell Jones, J.D., is a consultant to the Center for Progressive Reform on Chesapeake Bay issues.  She joined CPR in 2007 as a policy analyst, and took on the role of executive director in 2009, before leaving the staff to teach environmental policy at Old Dominion University.

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