Sea-Level Rise Redux

BEAUFORT – The state’s Coastal Resources Commission gathered on an island near here Wednesday to talk about the latest report from its science advisers on sea-level rise along the N.C. coast.

There were no fireworks this time.

Unlike the last time the commission tackled the subject, no one talked of one-meter rises in sea level. No one denounced the findings or demeaned its authors. No one bemoaned the effects on tourism or coastal land prices. Legislators aren’t likely to find anything in the new report, when it lands on their desks in 2016, that will tie their knickers in a knot and lead to embarrassing bills that are lampooned on cable television and newspaper editorial pages.

It was all rather, well, boring.

“We can all be proud of this report and work done by our Science Panel,” Frank Gorham, the commission’s chairman, said after Margery Overton, who heads the panel, summarized the draft report at the CRC meeting at the NOAA Lab on Pivers Island. “This report gives us a great deal of credibility.”

Frank Gorham
Todd Miller

That wasn’t the word used in 2010 when the Science Panel presented its first report on climate-induced sea-level rise in North Carolina. That report forecast a likely 39-inch rise by 2100 as the climate warms, or about triple the historic rate. Though it was in line with those in similar reports from around the world, the forecast still raised the ire of some coastal developers and local governments, who feared that regulations to head off such a calamitous future would stifle economic development on the coast.

Their howls where heard in Raleigh in 2012 where Republicans, then newly empowered at the N.C. General Assembly, wanted to forbid state and local governments from using the forecast when planning for the future. The effort was ridiculed worldwide as an attempt to outlaw sea-level rise, including a scathing parody by Stephen Colbert on his TV show. Even old King Canute had a brief resurgence in popular media.

Legislators backed off a bit and passed a bill that shelved the report and directed the CRC to issue a revised version. The commission, at Gorham’s urging, then ordered its advisers earlier this year to limit their forecast to 30 years with revisions every five years. Other similar reports use much longer timeframes to capture the expected acceleration in sea-level rise in the second half of the century as the oceans respond to a much warmer climate.

The engineers and scientists on the Science Panel, Overton explained Wednesday, used information from five tide gauges along the coast to come up with a range of forecasts for different coastal regions. Historic data from the gauges, the draft report notes, indicate a mean sea-level rise in the next 30 years of 2.4 inches at Wilmington, 3.2 inches at Beaufort, 4.3 inches at Oregon Inlet and 5.4 inches at Duck on the Currituck Banks.

Regionalizing the forecasts is a directive contained in the bill passed by the legislature and is a great improvement over the single, statewide prediction of the original report, noted Greg “Rudi” Rudolph, a geologist on the Science Panel who directs Carteret County’s Shore Protection Office.

“No other state has done that,” he said. “I think it will be a great benefit as we move forward.”

How high the sea gets depends on where you’re standing on the coast. The rate of rise tends to be higher north of Cape Lookout because the land there is sinking – subsidence, the geologists call it — and is closer to the Gulf Stream, which recent research has shown increases the rate.

The 30-year timeframe that the commission ordered the Science Panel to follow is meant to avoid the scary projections of the original report and others of its kind. They show sea level rising at historic rates until later in the century when they accelerate dramatically because of the continued emissions of gases warming the climate.

The panel, in its report, acknowledged that possibility by including two other predictions that account for the influence of greenhouse gases. Data from the latest forecasts from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the report notes, suggest mean sea level will rise about three more inches then the tide gauges predict over the next 30 years if emissions are reduced from current levels:  5.7 inches at Wilmington, 6.5 in Beaufort, 7.6 at Oregon Inlet and 8.7 at Duck. Add another inch at all locations if emissions continue at peak levels, the report says.

Everyone at the meeting Wednesday seemed to be happy with the report, but there’s a contrarian in every crowd. Todd Miller, the executive director of the N.C. Coastal Federation, noted that there was no talk Wednesday about the implications of even a modest rise in sea level over the next three decades.

“Look at what’s happening now with flooding and damage from minor storms,” he said. “How much worse will it be if the sea rises six more inches?”

At the same meeting that the CRC praised a report that attempts to minimize sea-level rise, the commission talked about increasing development near inlets and allowing it closer to the ocean, Miller said. “No one seems to be connecting the dots,” he said.

The draft report will next be sent to Robert Dean, professor emeritus in the University of Florida’s coastal and oceanographic engineering program, and James Houston, a retired engineer at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for peer review. Then, it will be available for public comment, probably starting in March. A final report will be submitted to the legislature by March 1, 2016.

About the Author

Frank Tursi

The author of three books and a 30-year newspaper veteran, Frank Tursi is the founding editor of "Coastal Review Online." He retired in 2016. Before joining the federation in 2002, Frank was the senior environmental reporter in North Carolina. His writing has won numerous state and national awards. An avid fisherman and model boat builder, he lives in Swansboro with his wife, Doris, where Frank is a town commissioner.