The chairman of the state’s coastal planning board wants to let local towns and counties decide how North Carolina will cope with a rising sea level.
“I have a philosophical hesitancy to mandate from Raleigh,” said Frank Gorham III of Figure Eight Island, chairman of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission. “I have a lot of faith in the local expertise.”
Gorham is overseeing the development of official state projections for how much higher the Atlantic Ocean will rise over the next 30 years. The commission’s advisory science panel reported this week that sea levels are climbing along the coast at different rates, mostly because of ancient geological forces that are causing the northern Outer Banks to subside.
The legislature ordered the new forecast in 2012 and asked the Coastal Resources Commission to figure out whether the state should adopt new policies in response to sea-level rise. The new sea-level report and Gorham’s handling of it reflect efforts to avoid the repeat of a political backlash that sank a 2010 sea-level forecast, which warned of a 39-inch rise by 2100.
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This time, using three different forecast scenarios, the panel’s 43-page report says that by 2045 the sea will rise 2.4 to 6.8 inches higher at Wilmington, and 5.4 to 8.1 inches at the Dare County community of Duck. Because the forecast includes a margin of error, those numbers could reach as high as 9.3 inches at Wilmington and 10.6 inches at Duck.
The legislature also directed the commission to study the economic and environmental merits of “developing, or not developing, sea-level regulations and policies.”
Gorham said that if the full Coastal Resources Commission agrees with him that no state policies are needed, he will not bother conducting the study.
“I’m not going to do a six-month study on the economic impact of not doing something,” Gorham said.
An environmental lawyer says coastal communities are going to need the state’s help and said he hopes the commission doesn’t drop the sea-level issue now.
“It’s hard to imagine an effective response to sea-level rise that doesn’t include a significant contribution from the Coastal Resources Commission,” said Geoff Gisler, a Chapel Hill-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
State regulation feared
When beach developers and local politicians attacked the 2010 forecast, they cited fears that the state was planning to chill the coastal economy with costly, unneeded regulation.
They said the science panel erred in relying on readings from only one tide gauge, at Duck. And they blasted the panel’s warning – adopted from major world scientific organizations and climate studies – that the rate of sea-level rise will accelerate in the latter half of this century, as greenhouse gases warm the Earth and ocean waters expand.
The new report considers separate projections for different parts of the coast. It includes the possibility that – instead of speeding up – the sea will rise at the same rates measured over past decades at each tide gauge.
But panel members say they still expect sea-level rise to accelerate in coming years. They predict that the numbers in 2045 will fall within two scenarios in their report showing lower or higher amounts of greenhouse gases, as projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“The panel’s thoughts are that we are likely to see something between the two IPCC ranges,” said panel member Spencer Rogers, a coastal erosion specialist for N.C. Sea Grant.
Panel member Bill Birkemeier of Duck, a retired federal government coastal engineer, agreed. “Based on all the things we know are changing, this is a better forecast,” Birkemeier said.
Coastal critics who attacked the original 39-inch forecast for 2100 now like Gorham’s decision to put a 30-year limit on the new projections.
“We were all pleased to see a more realistic time frame, rather than (projecting) 100 years out at what may or may not happen,” said Willo Kelly, a lobbyist for Dare County Realtors. She helped lead a ferocious campaign that persuaded the legislature to kill the 2010 forecast.
The Coastal Resources Commission oversees development policies and approves land-use plans in 20 coastal counties. But, like Gorham, commission member Larry Baldwin of Harkers Island believes that local communities “know what’s best for them” on how to deal with rising sea level.
“It would be crazy for the state to start dictating coast-wide if Dare County has different conditions that Wilmington,” said Baldwin, a soil scientist, who has been a skeptic of the sea-level predictions. “And each community has different needs. Planning and zoning has always been a county issue.”
Local setback and freeboard rules
Coastal towns and counties already address the risk of flooding and shore-front erosion with building rules and land-use policies that also will help them adapt to sea-level rise in coming years.
Setback rules use 30-year erosion rates to push new buildings back from the encroaching water. Most coastal communities have rules for new buildings that require two or three feet of “freeboard” for the lowest floor – elevating it above the level of flooding expected in the next 100 years. That puts new buildings well above the maximum 9 or 10 inches of sea-level rise projected for 2045.
“The numbers in our report can be put in perspective with some of those adaptation measures that have already been taken,” Rogers said. “In terms of planning for the next 30 years, many communities are ahead of” the sea-level forecast.
Rogers, Kelly and commission members agreed that projections going out farther than 30 years will be needed to guide decisions about major investments in things like hospitals, power plants and sewer lines.
Now the commission and the N.C. Division of Coastal Management will solicit public comment on the new projections at community meetings up and down the coast.
Gisler, the environmental lawyer, said it will be important for the state to increase public awareness about how shore-front property will be affected as the sea rises.
“So people will know that this land may be cheap, but it’s cheap for a reason,” Gisler said. “That it’s going to be very flood-prone over the next 30 years.”