Politicians imposed a 30-year time limit on sea-level forecasts for North Carolina’s coast, but the scientists made their point anyway.
Sea level is rising, it will cause more flooding of low-lying areas, and the process is accelerating, according to a draft report released Dec. 31 by the Science Panel of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission.
This may not be what the legislature wants to hear. The 30-year window was supposed to produce small numbers for projected sea-level rise. The panel predicts just 4 to 5 inches at Wilmington and 11 to 12 inches at Duck on the northern Outer Banks. The difference has to do with the vertical movement of the ground and the effects of ocean dynamics, which are both more pronounced the farther north you go along North Carolina’s coast.
Also at play is climate change, which the panel readily accepts as having an impact on sea level.
For that, it relies on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“Because the IPCC report is based on peer-reviewed research and is itself peer-reviewed science, it is the most widely used and vetted climate document,” the Science Panel notes.
The IPCC, established by the United Nations Environment Programme, is regarded by climate-change skeptics as dishonest, inept or both. North Carolina’s Republican legislature must overcome such suspicions.
The Science Panel offered a glimpse beyond the politically imposed 30-year horizon: “IPCC projections reflect increasing rates of sea level rise that show more substantial increases over time frames longer than 30 years.” Meaning: A possible foot of sea-level rise is just the beginning. For that reason, it sensibly recommended updating its report every five years.
North Carolina’s coast is important to the life of the state and must be managed wisely. When decisions are made about constructing roads and bridges, placing water and sewer lines and building homes and businesses, knowing where the ocean will be in 30 or 50 years is critical. And not just where the normal tide line will reach. The impact of storms must be taken into account.
Every calculation has a cost. Property that scientists think will be threatened in the future may begin to lose value today. Protecting value is a legitimate interest, and there’s an understandable resistance to sacrificing value if the science isn’t reliable. At the same time, it’s foolish to allow more investment in areas that good science says are highly vulnerable to an approaching tide.
The state must review coastal development policies informed by the latest science. Future strategies may include retreat from flood-prone areas, reinforcement of structures to help them withstand storms, and resistance — using protective barriers, pumping systems or other means to fight off the sea.
The Science Panel consists of experts from state universities, the Coastal Resources Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Its work should be respected and updated regularly. Having the right information is half the battle. Believing and acting on it is the rest.