Publication Date December 6, 2017 | The Chronicle of Higher Education

Rising Waters, Threatened Campuses

United States

When the water comes, the familiar campus life will come to an end. Classes will be relocated or moved online; students will be forced to abandon the deluged library; campus construction plans will have to be overhauled, if not scrapped.

The impact is almost unimaginable, but it is only a matter of time. That the climate is changing and the seas will continue rising are no longer in question. The uncertainty now is how much and how soon.

For many colleges and universities on America’s coasts, the threat is no longer theoretical. Sea-level rise — along with increased stormwater from altered weather patterns and the possibility of more-frequent, more intense hurricanes — is already a concern.

Here’s how four colleges, urban and rural, from Virginia to California, are struggling to prepare for the future. Several face difficult circumstances because of local politics as well as their locations. And although the threats are clear, the cost of preparation often discourages action or puts off efforts to build in resiliency, as immediate problems are dealt with.


For Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Va., combating floods is nothing new. The public institution has worked for decades to ward off water from its 251-acre campus. But the continuing rise in sea level threatens to exacerbate the problem for the campus and its community. “I don’t have any choice but for it to be top of mind,” says Old Dominion’s president, John R. Broderick. “How does this play into the day-to-day life of our students, our faculty, and staff?”

The region is second only to coastal Louisiana when it comes to the peril of a rising sea, andchronic flooding worsens by the year. The region’s plight is complicated further by land subsidence, which, though unrelated to climate change, has lowered the ground elevation by 3.3 millimeters a year over the past century, allowing more floodwaters. Currently, “nuisance” flooding — when waters at high tide cause inconveniences like flooded roadways — is a regular occurrence. As recently as November, a King Tide brought floodwaters on a calm, sunny day, to an area that included parts of Old Dominion’s campus.