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Washington, D.C. is sinking into the sea

With Americans’ approval of Congress lingering near record lows, perhaps this will come as good news: Washington, DC is rapidly sinking into the sea.

With Americans’ approval of Congress lingering near record lows and about half the country unsatisfied with the White House, perhaps this will come as good news: Washington, D.C. is sinking into the sea.

Is the big slide some kind of karmic comeuppance? A matter of unchecked climate change? A side effect of excessive groundwater pumping? Nope, not this time, according to the researchers who confirmed Washington’s watery destiny in a new study.

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The problem is something called “forebulge collapse,” a wonderfully evocative phrase that refers to the geological ups and downs of the last ice age. Until about 20,000 years ago, there was a mile-high ice sheet that stretched as far south as Long Island. It was so heavy, scholars say, that the land under modern Washington, D.C. bulged up—and eventually we decided to start building a government on it.

"It's a bit like sitting on one side of a water bed filled with very thick honey," Ben DeJong, the lead author on the new study, told Science Daily. “The other side goes up. But when you stand, the bulge comes down again."

This new waterbed-based understanding of Washington, D.C. was produced by geologists from the University of Vermont, the U.S. Geological Survey and other institutions. It was published this week in GSA Today, the magazine of the Geological Society of America.

It projects that Washington will drop by six or more inches in the next century, adding to the problems of sea-level rise, and threatening a mix of military installations and national monuments.  

To conduct the study, DeJong and others drilled holes in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Washington, and examined the layers of sediment. They combined those findings with computer models and satellite scans of the area. The result is what the geologists called a “bullet proof” vision of wet ankles and flooded basements—unless we start adapting.

"Right now is the time to start making preparations," DeJong told Science Daily. "Six extra inches of water really matters in this part of the world.”

The findings add to the danger already identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which projects at least a foot of global-warming-related sea-level rise by 2100. Another recent study, led by the former NASA climate scientists James Hansen, suggested the rise could be higher and faster—as much as 10 feet by mid-century.

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Records from more than a century of tide gauges show that the mid-Atlantic has already witnessed waves rising faster than other parts of the world. The IPCC reports that sea levels have increased roughly 1.8 millimeters a year worldwide over the past century. In the region between New Jersey and Virginia, however, the rise has been twice as great.

"It's ironic that the nation's capital--the place least responsive to the dangers of climate change--is sitting in one of the worst spots it could be in terms of this land subsidence," Paul Bierman, another UVM geologist told Science Daily. "Will the Congress just sit there with their feet getting ever wetter? What's next, forebulge denial?"

Let’s hope not.