June 21, 2014

30-year NC sea-level forecast gathers calm support

The Coastal Resources Commission chairman, Frank Gorham III, is working to avoid the controversy sparked in 2010 when a science panel warned that the Atlantic Ocean might rise 39 inches higher by 2100.

Frank Gorham III, chairman of the state Coastal Resources Commission, is winning support for his mission to chill the scorching issues around climate change and rising sea levels on the North Carolina coast.

Coastal developers and Republican legislators were alarmed when a state science panel warned in 2010 that the Atlantic Ocean might climb 39 inches higher along our shores by the end of this century. In 2012, the legislature ordered a four-year moratorium on sea-level predictions and gave the Coastal Resources Commission strict guidelines for developing a new official state forecast.

Gorham declared in May that the next report will look only 30 years into the future – a relatively short time span when there is expected to be little disagreement over what will happen along the coast.

And now that Gorham has rolled back the scope of its work, he says the original science panel can do the job without help from new members who might inject bias and controversy into the process.

“Quite frankly, the vast majority of all nominations are clearly in one camp or another,” Gorham said in a June 11 memo to commission members. “If you pick one of these, are you trying to stack the deck or play politics from the other side’s viewpoint?”

Some coastal residents are still concerned about what will happen in future decades, beyond that 30-year limit, but they expect to see general public support for Gorham’s effort to turn down the heat.

“I thought it was a very balanced and smart way to approach it,” said Phil Prete, senior environmental planner for the city of Wilmington.

Gorham filled just one of four vacant spots on the commission’s science panel with Greg “Rudi” Rudolph, a coastal geologist trained at East Carolina University who serves as shore protection manager for Carteret County.

The panel of coastal scientists and engineers, chaired by engineer Margery Overton of N.C. State University, is expected to have its first meeting in July and to deliver its draft forecast report to the commission by the end of December. Gorham wants a “rolling” 30-year forecast to be updated every five years.

Willo Kelly, president of NC-20, a coastal development advocacy group that led the protest against the original forecast for 39 inches by 2100, praised Gorham’s new direction.

“I’m pleased to see they’re looking at forecasting for 30 years and not 86 years,” said Kelly, a Dare County real estate agent. “It seems like a commonsense approach to something we are really not certain of.”

8 inches in 30 years

Todd Miller, president of the N.C. Coastal Federation, said there is more agreement about what will happen in the next 30 years than about the latter half of the 21st century.

“The projections are that we’ll see a gradual rise over the next 30 years, and a more rapid rise after that,” Miller said. “For 30 years, 8 inches is about what we’re talking about.”

The science panel’s 2010 forecast was consistent with warnings from science groups around the world that hotter temperatures will cause the rise in sea levels to accelerate in future decades.

Coastal residents will need a good forecast for later years, Miller said, to help guide long-range plans. State and local governments will be investing in big public improvements – highways, bridges, water lines, hospitals – built to last a half-century or more, he said.

“The question is, is 30 years a good time horizon to do planning for something that’s going to be around for 100 years?” Miller asked.

Prete had the same concern.

“There are some decisions we need to make today that will result in investment in infrastructure with a 50-to-100-year lifespan,” Prete said. “Pulling the blinds at 30 years basically limits our ability to anticipate and manage any risks beyond that.”

“For example, if you’re planning to build a sewer pump station with a 50-year life span, then you want to know what the 50-year outlook might be, not just 30 years.”

The commission and the legislature added provisions that will make the new forecast more valuable, Prete said. It will include separate information for different parts of the shoreline, and for the Inner Banks counties that border the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.

“So if they come back with a projection specific to our region, that gives us better information,” Prete said. Coastal scientists agree that the sea level is rising faster along the northern shore because that part of the coastal plain is slowly sinking.

Critics of the original 39-inch forecast continue to base their argument on skepticism about computer models used to predict that sea levels will start to rise more rapidly in the future than they have over the past century.

Skeptics kept off panel

Larry Baldwin, a Harkers Island soil science consultant who works with developers, serves on the Coastal Resources Commission and is a member of the NC-20 board of directors. Baldwin had nominated three candidates for the science panel, all with records of expressing skepticism about climate science and the predicted acceleration in sea level rise.

Baldwin said he was disappointed that none of his candidates was invited to help devise the new official state forecast.

“I think some of them would have brought good discussion to the panel, to make sure that a comprehensive look is done at this issue,” Baldwin said. “Models are great tools when they are used properly, but they can lead you to very bad conclusions.”

But he said Gorham’s lone appointee, Rudolph, was a good choice.

“Rudi represents a balanced approach to things,” Baldwin said.

Although the science panel will produce its draft forecast by the end of 2014, there will be more months of review and deliberation before the Coastal Resources Commission formally delivers a report to the legislature in 2016.

Gorham, appointed to the commission by Gov. Pat McCrory, lives at Figure Eight Island and makes his living drilling for petroleum in the Southwest. He said the panel’s work will be circulated for public comment and critiqued by a pair of scientists known nationally for their sea-level research: Robert G. Dean, a former civil engineering professor at the University of Florida, and James R. Houston, a former research director with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Once the 30-year forecast has been formulated, Gorham will order a second report requested by the General Assembly: a study of the economic and environmental costs and benefits of developing coastal regulations based on the sea-level forecast.

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