The data are in, and the numbers are unequivocal.
After all the tumult, after the industry-fostered head-in-sand denialism, after the legislative tinkering to obfuscate the emerging reality, the truth—the science—remains the same: The coast of North Carolina, and especially the northern part of the Outer Banks, is sinking into the sea.
This, of course, isn't just a North Carolina problem. Global climate change is melting polar ice caps, altering the jet stream and producing more ferocious hurricanes and floods all over the world. But its effects will be acutely felt here, according to a draft report released last week by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission Science Panel on Coastal Hazards.
The detailed, 43-page document draws on tidal gauge measurements at five points along the eastern coast—at Duck, Oregon Inlet, Beaufort, Wilmington and Southport—as well as projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to forecast sea level changes over the next 30 years. At Duck, the hardest-hit tidal gauge, the panel projects that by 2045, sea levels will have risen by 4.4 inches to 10.6 inches. At Southport, the least-affected gauge, the sea is expected to rise between 1.9 inches and 9.4 inches.
That may not sound like a lot, says Stanley Riggs, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at East Carolina University and a Science Panel member, but the effects could be devastating.
"There are two different things," Riggs says. "One is the long-term change going on in the globe—slow, systematic. You also have the short-term. The short-term ranges from daily tides to storm surges—5, 10, 15, 20-foot change in sea levels in hours."
Put another way, as sea levels creep up, the short-term impacts become more pronounced. "As you raise the water in the bathtub," Riggs explains, "every storm has a bigger impact."
As a result, he says, "Most houses in North Carolina that are oceanfront will not make it through a 30-year mortgage" without the government spending money to improve and sustain the area's infrastructure. "The sea level report is very important for the long-term economy of the coastal system, as well as the individual homeowner. You will be in the water in 30 years unless you spend a lot of money."
This report updates one the panel released in March 2010. Back then, the Science Panel projected sea level rise out to the turn of the century, and concluded that sea levels would increase somewhere between 15 inches and 55 inches, with a likely average of 39 inches.
"The public didn't quite get the 100-year thing," Riggs says.
It wasn't so much the public as conservative interest groups and the politicians who cater to them. In 2012, the Legislature—at the urging of NC-20, an interest group comprising developers, Realtors and representatives of coastal counties—passed a law to constrain state agencies' ability to forecast climate-change scenarios. The Science Panel was instructed to project sea level rise only for 30 years.
In short, the state didn't want to know the long-term implications, because addressing them would be expensive. NC-20's then-chairman Tom Thompson told the INDY that it would cost coastal communities millions of dollars to prepare for a 39-inch rise, which he didn't think was going to happen: "It will be a miracle if the sea level rise reaches 39 inches. If we wait and see, then it costs nothing. If they're right, then fine."
Late last week Frank Gorham III, an oil-and-gas man whom Gov. McCrory appointed chair of the CRC in 2013, told The News & Observer that he wants coastal communities, not the state, to take the lead on addressing sea level rise. A spokeswoman for the Division of Coastal Management told the INDY that the CRC "doesn't have any plan for regulatory action or anything of that nature."
Spencer Rogers, a science panel member and coastal construction and erosion specialist for N.C. Sea Grant, downplays the significance of the report's predictions. Nuisance flooding, he says, will be "a little more frequent." Storm surges could be "slightly larger." He adds that most coastal communities have already taken steps to ameliorate sea level rise—mandating that new buildings be elevated a foot or two.
Environmental activists, however, say the state's hands-off approach is insufficient. They want the state to not just mitigate the potential damage, but also address the underlying issue: climate change.
"It is a global problem," says Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, communications director for the state chapter of the Sierra Club. "The first step is doing our part to mitigate it. There are things we can do right now in North Carolina" to reduce carbon emissions.
If anything, though, the state is headed in the other direction. McCrory—a former Duke Energy executive—has expressed skepticism about humans' role in a warming planet and pushed to open North Carolina's coast to oil and gas exploration. And activists have faulted him for not sufficiently investing in the state's growing renewable-energy industries.
"The main takeaway is the science is here," says Chicurel-Bayard. "The big question is what are our state and our governor going to do. So far we haven't seen any leadership on this issue."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Your coastal home, some day a submarine."