Home Earth Washington, DC is sinking fast – literally

Washington, DC is sinking fast – literally

It’s a common theme when discussing Washington, DC to suggest that the political environment sinks lower every year, slowly descending to a level where barely-sentient politicians fling poo at one another. It’s also a popular joke that Washington, DC is build on an unstable swamp. One of those things is definitely not true, but nonetheless geologists from the University of Vermont have found that the land under the Chesapeake Bay – including Washington, DC – is literally sinking.

The researchers say the region could sink six or more inches in the next 100 years, which would add to the area’s already troublesome problem of rising sea levels.

The sinking has t do with something called a forebulge, and its continued collapse. Tens of thousands of years ago, during the last ice age, a humongous ice sheet covering northern North America weighed so much that it pushed the land around it away. In turn, that cause the land even further south to bulge upward. Once the ice sheet began melting 20,000 years ago, the forebulge has slowly shrunk.

“It’s a bit like sitting on one side of a water bed filled with very thick honey,” explains Ben DeJong, the lead author on the new study, who conducted the research as a doctoral student at UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources with support from the U.S. Geological Survey, “then the other side goes up. But when you stand, the bulge comes down again.”

Of course, this is not a geological issue that can be blamed on humans, for once. People didn’t melt the prehistoric ice sheet, and there’s precious little we could do to stop the land from leveling out. Where climate change does come in, however, is the fact that the waters of the Chesapeake Bay are rising at twice the global average rate and faster than elsewhere on the East Coast. If nothing else, it’s incumbent upon officials in the area to adequately prepare in order to preserve Washington, DC’s infrastructure and monuments.

“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,” said Paul Bierman, a UVM geologist and the senior author on the new paper. “Will the Congress just sit there with their feet getting ever wetter? What’s next, forebulge denial?”