The state’s sea level retreat

This op-ed piece about the politics and reality of sea level rise in North Carolina was published on February 23, 2012 in the News&Observer. The author, Dr. Orrin H. Pilkey, is James B. Duke professor emeritus of earth sciences at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He is one of the regions most respected coastal environmental scientists and is an expert on coastal processes including sea level rise. 

DURHAM — The plight of citizens in the tiny town of Pamlico, flooded by Hurricane Irene last August, has been in the news. Pamlico is one of dozens of small communities along the shorelines of Pamlico and Albermarle sounds. All are endangered by future storm surges, a risk that grows with rising sea level.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, North Carolina is at particular risk from flooding related to sea level rise, especially the Pamlico and Albermarle sounds region. Land slopes there are extremely gentle, often of the order of 1:10,000. This means that a 1 foot rise in sea level can flood inland on the mainland for 10,000 feet.

Because of this extraordinary flood risk, the State Division of Emergency Management was awarded $5 million federal grant to carry out a Sea Level Rise Risk Study. The plan is to determine the effect of sea level rise on flooding and especially storm surges for a 40 cm. (16 inches) sea level rise and for a rise of 1 meter (39 inches). The 1 meter rise was considered the most likely scenario by 2100 in a 2010 report by the Science Panel of the state Coastal Resources Commission.

Other states’ science panels have come to essentially the same conclusion. Science panels from Maine, Rhode Island, Florida, Louisiana, California and Washington state concluded that a sea level rise between 3 and 4 feet is a minimal expectation by 2100.

Enter NC-20, an organization lobbying for North Carolina’s 20 coastal counties. Unfortunately, it plays down sea level rise and the risk that it carries for the future of coastal development. In so doing, the efforts of this group have been anti-science. Now it has caused the Emergency Management division to report only on the risk afforded by a 40 cm. sea level rise and to not publicly report on the 1 meter rise.

NC-20 representatives have claimed repeatedly that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that the sea level would rise between 7 and 22 inches by 2100. Indeed the panel did give those numbers – but it also stated that “this range of values does not include the contribution of meltwater from Greenland and Antarctica – believed to be the most important sources of meltwater for sea level rise between now and 2100.”

In a presentation to the General Assembly, NC-20 touted a list of 30 experts who are said not to believe the North Carolina science panel’s numbers. These “experts” include one who wrote a pamphlet entitled “Sea Level Rise is the Greatest Lie Ever Told.”

The vast majority of thousands of genuine specialists in related fields of global climate change support the principles behind the science panel’s conclusions. The National Academy of Science, the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union all have issued white papers supporting the likelihood of a major sea level rise by 2100.

By insisting that a 1 meter rise not be analyzed, NC-20 has served to help withhold scientifically sound information from public view. The information is critical for the future of our coast. The dozens of towns, large and small, in North Carolina’s lowermost coastal plain (e.g., Elizabeth City, Plymouth, Columbia, Cedar Island, Swan Quarter and Davis) are vulnerable already to hurricane storm surges. With a meter of sea level rise they will likely have to be moved, abandoned, elevated or diked. Shouldn’t we be having honest discussions about this?

A 1 meter rise would also mean the end of development on barrier islands as we know it. Beach nourishment would be impossible and survival would require a massive wall around entire islands. Should we prohibit future high-rise development to retain some flexibility in our sea level rise response? Or should we keep our heads in the sand and hope the problem will solve itself?

The time has come for a full, healthy discussion about our coast and its future.

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