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The Nation’s Capital Is Sinking — Literally

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"Right now is the time to start making preparations."

While some might say the heart of U.S. politics is sinking in a figurative manner, scientists say it's doing so quite literally.

Scientists estimate that land of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding Chesapeake Bay region will sink six inches within the century, subjecting the area to more severe flooding. (Photo Credit: Getty Images) Scientists estimate that land of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding Chesapeake Bay region will sink six inches within the century, subjecting the area to more severe flooding. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Washington, D.C. and the surrounding Chesapeake Bay region will drop an estimated six inches by the end of the century, according to researchers with the University of Vermont.

The study, published in the journal GSA Today, confirms what measurements of sea level rise have already shown — that the sea level in this region is rising faster than anywhere else on the East Coast. Scientific measurements though helped provide an estimate of what can be expected in the future and confirmed that a natural process is driving it.

According to the study, the current sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay region is 3.4 mm per year, compared to the average rate of 1.7 mm per year.

The Vermont scientists, along with researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and other institutions, believe the sinking of the land is due to "forebulge collapse." The land in the Chesapeake Bay region, they said, was pushed upward during the ice age due to the weight of the North American ice sheet pressing on the land further north. After the ice sheet melted, the land began to sink back down.

"It’s a bit like sitting on one side of a water bed filled with very thick honey, then the other side goes up," the study's lead author, Ben DeJong said in a statement. "But when you stand, the bulge comes down again."

The research team drilled 70 holes hundreds of feet deep to obtain samples and used other technology that allowed them to create a 3-D map of what the land in the Chesapeake region looked like during this and other post-glacial periods. Based on their analysis, the land is currently in a stage of gradual sinking that will last for millennia.

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

Couple that with models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which estimate up to three feet in global sea-level rise by 2100 due to climate change, and the nation's capital could be in hot water.

"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, a geologist at the university, said in a statement. "Will the Congress just sit there with their feet getting ever wetter? What’s next, forebulge denial?"

According to the study, a drop of six inches would make Washington, D.C., more vulnerable to flooding and "poses significant threats" to "bridges, military facilities, national monuments and portions of the rapid transit system," in addition to about 70,000 residents.

Some areas of the bay region are already taking steps to mitigate the effects.

"At the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, managers are designing corridors for the landward migration of habitat through easements and land acquisition to ensure the persistence of tidal marsh beyond AD 2100," the study authors wrote.

Watch this report about the research:

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