Hampton Roads Climate Change Adaptation Project

Hampton Roads, Virginia engaged in a three-phase Climate Change Adaptation Project to identify impacts, assess the region’s vulnerabilities, and identify potential strategies for adapting to anticipated impacts. Part of the assessment focused on impacts to transportation infrastructure, although transportation impacts were only one issue of many analyzed in the three reports.

Hampton Roads is a region in Southeastern Virginia where the James River empties into the Chesapeake Bay and then into the Atlantic Ocean. The region spans sixteen cities and counties from Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Newport News to Gloucester. The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC) began the assessment in June 2008 with Phase I of the Project, which focused on researching the types of climate change impacts anticipated for the region. Phase II identified the extent of those impacts, with a focus on sea-level rise and flooding. A Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool was designed to estimate the exposure of the region to storm surges under various scenarios of sea-level rise. Phase III analyzed the effects of sea-level rise on various sectors, including the built environment and infrastructure. In January 2012, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO) released its 2034 Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), which referenced the vulnerability assessment, but did not incorporate any of the specific recommendations developed in the reports. 

Phase I of the Project assessed the general vulnerability of the Hampton Roads region to climate impacts and summarized the climate science used to complete the analysis. Using climate change projections from IPCC 2007 and the Virginia Governor’s Commission on Climate Change (2008), the summarizing report, Climate Change in Hampton Roads: Impacts and Stakeholder Involvement, concluded that the combined effects of sea-level rise and storm surges posed the greatest climate threats to the region. The report found that roadways and railways throughout Hampton Roads, including a major interstate highway (Highway 64), were at risk of flooding or structural damage from storm surges and sea-level rise.

Phase II, Storm Surge Vulnerability and Public Outreach, was completed in June 2011. The region’s vulnerabilities were assessed through the development of a GIS tool, which compiled data on storm surge, elevation, U.S. census data, critical infrastructure (hospitals, fire stations, schools), roads, and businesses. The study confirms that sea-level rise and flooding during storm events pose a significant threat to the region, with over 5,000 linear miles of road exposed during a Category 4 hurricane. The report includes exposure maps that show infrastructure and populations at risk of flooding and areas that would be inundated during different size storm events. Phase II also included recommendations for how to improve research and strategic planning. It advised that local governments combine staff into regional working groups to collaborate on adaptation efforts. The report also recommends that local governments consider three possible ways of planning for sea-level rise:

• hazard mitigation planning: identifying hazards, assessing vulnerabilities, and devising policies to reduce exposure and vulnerability;
• scenario planning: assessing vulnerabilities across a range of different sea-level rise and build-out scenarios; and
• anticipatory planning: utilizing a three-step approach to: (1) develop a range of possible futures; (2) create flexible adaptation strategies; and (3) monitor/respond to conditions as they happen.

In Phase III, Sea Level Rise in Hampton Roads, Virginia, the HRPDC refined the GIS tool developed in Phase II to analyze the impacts of sea-level rise and aid local decision makers in developing cost-efficient adaptation strategies. The Phase III report includes a useful analysis of the difficulties experienced in compiling various data sets, including HRPDC’s inability to use high-resolution LiDAR data for Hampton Road localities because the datasets were collected at different times and had different resolutions. The study estimates that the region could face up to 5.7 feet of sea-level rise under a high emissions scenario that factors in ice sheet melt and regional subsidence. Based upon an analysis of a 1-meter (3.3 feet) rise in sea level, much of the region’s transportation infrastructure is vulnerable to flooding, including 18 miles of interstate highways, 77 miles of state primary roads, 100 miles of secondary roads, and 683 miles of local and private roads.

The Phase III report concludes with various recommendations about how the region can prepare for climate impacts:

• Acquire high-resolution LiDAR data that is of sufficient quality and characteristics necessary for analyzing sea-level rise impacts.
• Begin planning for sea-level rise impacts through comprehensive plans and other local plans and policies.
• Work with state and federal officials and staff to develop and fund guidance for affected communities.
• Study potential strategies for adapting to impacts including how existing regulatory authorities can be used to help localities adapt to impacts. 

The Hampton Roads Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), issued after Phase II but before Phase III of the Climate Change Adaptation project, acknowledges the substantial risks to transportation assets posed by climate change. The LRTP cites the Virginia Governor’s Commission on Climate Change Final Report and the Phase II Vulnerability Assessment, but does not include any specific recommendations for responding to climate change threats. The LRTP places sea-level rise and storm surges as high and moderate risk under its Critical Hazard Risk Assessment, and notes that sea-level rise might lead to more frequent road and bridge closings, particularly during large storms such as hurricanes. The LRTP concludes that climate impacts, specifically sea-level rise, might eventually require the relocation or rebuilding of regional roadways. The LRTP explains why it may be difficult to adopt transportation adaptation strategies due to financial constraints, and emphasizes that policy alternatives to adapt transportation infrastructure to the impacts posed by hurricanes and flooding are limited. The LRTP does not provide for specific, concrete measures that should be taken to safeguard infrastructure against rising sea levels.

The three-phase Climate Change Adaptation Project was funded through the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program (VCZMP) under a Coastal Zone Management grant administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Since completing the three-phase study, HRPDC has continued to develop tools and provide other planning support for local governments. HRDPC completed a report in July 2013, Coastal Resiliency: Adapting to Climate Change in Hampton Roads, which identifies natural opportunities for local governments to begin incorporating sea-level rise into their planning processes and policies, with a particular focus on transportation. A “Hampton Roads Sea-Level Rise Preparedness and Resilience Intergovernmental Planning Pilot Project” is also being undertaken in 2015-2016 to develop adaptive planning for sea-level rise that combines federal, state, and local agency efforts with private industry and researchers to take a more comprehensive approach to preparedness and resilience.


This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support from the Federal Highway Administration. This entry was last updated on July 7, 2016.


Publication Date: July 2012

Related Organizations:

  • Hampton Roads Planning District Commission


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Assessment
  • Case study

States Affected:


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