Senate committee likes the slow-rise approach for sea-level forecasts June 7, 2012 

— Rejecting a science panel’s warning that the North Carolina coast should prepare for an increasingly rapid rise in sea level later in this century, a Senate committee on Thursday endorsed far-reaching rules that would force planning and regulatory agencies to base sea-level forecasts only on the slower rates recorded in the past.

“If you’re going to use science when you really can’t validate it, … you’re going to be implementing policy and rules and regulations that can have a very, very negative impact on the coastal economy of this state,” said Sen. David Rouzer, a Benson Republican who championed the legislation.

The bill would give the state Coastal Resources Commission sole responsibility for making any prediction for the rate of sea-level rise to be used as the basis for state or local regulations. The commission is a planning board with 15 members appointed by the governor.

It would place tight restrictions on how the commission could develop its forecast.

Projections for future rates must be based on “statistically significant, peer-reviewed historical data,” the bill says. The forecast could not include any prediction that sea level would rise at a faster rate in future years – unless this accelerated pace is “consistent with historic trends.”

That acceleration is just what has been predicted by several national scientific societies and other scientists, including a panel the Coastal Resources Commission appointed to make a forecast for the North Carolina coast. The panel said in 2010 that a rise of one meter (39 inches) was likely by 2100, partly because the rate of that increase will speed up by the middle of the century.

‘It’s just impossible’

“It’s already clear from the data that the rates of sea-level rise are accelerating,” professor Rob Jackson, who heads the Duke University Center on Global Change, told committee members. “We know that, and we know why: because of increasing temperatures and thermal expansion of ocean water, and because of ice melting.”

Jackson warned of economic consequences if the official forecast proves too low in future decades: new houses and other buildings ruined by rising seas, heavy insurance payouts, unexpected damage from disastrous storms.

“There are many things we can do something about if we use this data,” Jackson said in an interview. “I don’t see why taking into account the range of possible futures costs us money, compared to naively assuming the best-case scenario.”

Rouzer and other legislators were prodded to act after the science panel’s 39-inch forecast was attacked by a group called N.C.-20, a nonprofit that promotes economic development in 20 coastal counties.

“Nobody can predict the future with any degree of certainty,” Tom Thompson of Washington, N.C., the N.C.-20 board chairman, said in an interview. Rouzer and N.C.-20 sought to discredit the panel’s reliance on computer projections.

Thompson warned against wasting millions of dollars by building roads, houses and other structures high enough to avoid an unlikely rise in the sea level. Citing sea-level measures from the 20th century, Thompson’s group predicts a rise of only eight inches during the 21st century.

“We’re concerned there’s no science behind this thing,” Thompson, who serves as Beaufort County’s economic development director, said in an interview. “To say 39 inches in 88 years is just so far outside the historical realm, it’s just impossible.”

The legislation was endorsed by a unanimous voice vote Thursday in the Senate Environment, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The full Senate is expected to take up the bill next week.

The measure was crafted by Republican legislators in a rewrite of a bill – originally on a minor, unrelated coastal issue – that the House approved last year. If the Senate approves it, it will return to the House for concurrence.

‘We need to be open’

Bob Emory of New Bern, a Weyerhauser forester who serves as chair of the Coastal Resources Commission, said the legislation probably would prevent the board from making any forecast that includes a speeded-up pace for sea-level rise. But he won’t shy away from discussing the idea.

“We need to be open to what the science tells us,” Emory said.

He said the reaction by legislators and N.C.-20 had been based on the wrong impression – on a fear that the Coastal Resources Commission was likely to implement strict new rules based on that 39-inch forecast.

“The commission was not anticipating regulation any time soon based on that level of sea-level rise,” Emory said in an interview. “We wanted to hear the best scientific opinion we could get on the level of sea-level rise we should think about by the end of the century. I think it was consistent with the majority of the scientific opinion out there.”

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