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North Carolina Pretends Current Sea Level Rise Isn't Happening

North Carolina Pretends Current Sea Level Rise Isn't Happening
Courtesy: Kaid Benfield

Sometimes, you just can’t make this stuff up. It’s really embarrassing for me to write this, but the legislature of my native North Carolina has made it illegal for public officials to consider current rates of sea level rise as they plan for the future. And, no, I did not get this from The Onion.

It’s like this: as you can see from the image, coastal North Carolina – especially the Outer Banks north of the protected Cape Hatteras National Seashore – is overdeveloped. Way overdeveloped. And on the Outer Banks there is almost no land more than 20 feet above sea level, and lots of development at lower elevations precariously close to sea level. Those properties may not be worth much for still more development if climate scientists’ latest forecasts of rising sea levels – 1.2-1.3 meters, or about 4 feet, by 2100 – come true. Investors and insurers, in particular, along with state infrastructure planners, might be advised to look for other places to put their dollars.

It’s not just the Outer Banks, of course. There is lots of vulnerable, low-lying coastal land along Albemarle and
Courtesy: EPA                                           Pamlico Sounds in between the Outer Banks and the mainland, as well as coastline along the Atlantic Ocean in the southeastern part of the state. Everything you see in dark green on the map below would be under water with even a one-meter rise.

This is obviously a problem if you’re looking to squeeze in a few dozen more second or third homes on the Outer Banks or a new subdivision around, say, New Bern or Morehead City. So the legislators cooked up an adaptation strategy of sources. Wade Rawlins writes for Reuters:

Lawmakers in North Carolina, which has a long Atlantic Ocean coastline and vast areas of low-lying land, voted on Tuesday to ignore studies predicting a rapid rise in sea level due to climate change and postpone planning for the consequences ...

Backed by real estate developers, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a law requiring that projected rates of sea level rise be calculated on historical trends and not include accelerated rates of increase.

North Carolina is among the states most vulnerable to sea level rise with its long coastline and thousands of square miles of low-lying land. A 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey says sea levels along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts are rising three to four times faster than the global average. Global sea level rise has been projected to rise two to three feet by the end of the 21st century, but in hot spots, the increase may be greater.

State Representative Pat McElraft pointed out in floor debate that the historical rate of sea level rise had been only 8 inches over the last century, which he believes should be the assumed rate of further rise for planning and state investment purposes. 

Before final passage, the state Senate eked out a compromise of sorts with the more aggressive House of Representatives, limiting the prohibition against considering more recent forecasts to four years, while the Coastal Resources Commission updates its predictions with a new study. The new study must not only look at the acceleration scenario predicted by most scientists but also the possibility of "sea-level fall, no movement in sea level, [or] deceleration of sea-level rise." Between now and July 2016, state agencies may not consider the possibility of accelerated sea level rise in decision-making.

flooding on the Outer Banks in 2006 (by: Lori Wright, creative commons) 
2006 flood on the Outer Banks, courtesy lgsinden/Flickr

Leigh Phillips writes for Nature that, since the initial version of the bill was passed last month by the state House of Representatives, new research has been released pointing out that sea level has been rising at an accelerated rate along the North Carolina coast compared to historical trends and three to four times faster than the global average since 1980.  Researchers suggest that the apparent “hot spot” of rapid sea level rise along the Carolina coast may be due to localized variations in currents and land movements that change water temperature, salinity and density.

In her blog, my colleague Kelly Henderson quotes Tom Thompson, chair of a coastal development group that supported the legislation, as saying that a sea level rise of one meter (this was before the latest study predicting a higher rise) would mean “you could lose millions of dollars in development and 2,000 square miles would be condemned as a flood zone.”  Thompson, whose organization obviously has a financial interest in the outcome, argues that it would be unwise to delay investment while a new study is conducted.

2009 storm on the Outer Banks (by: Bryan Elkus, creative commons)
2009 storm on the Outer Banks, courtesy bryan elkus/Flickr

For me, that's a decision that private investors and state scientific and planning officials should decide for themselves, looking at all the evidence, not just the evidence that Thompson and his champions in the state legislature believe is in their favor. Call me crazy, but I trust the scientists more than the politicians to decide which oceanic data and forecasts should and should not be considered. 

North Carolina’s governor has not indicated whether she will sign the bill.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

Kaid Benfield is special counsel for urban solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Law, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and author of several books on cities, smart growth and sprawl. All posts »

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