Coastal geologist Stan Riggs, who tracks the ups and downs of North Carolina’s shoreline, needed a bullhorn to make himself heard above a roaring nor’easter that had toyed with the Outer Banks for two days.
He climbed down from the ridge of a DOT-built dune narrowly separating N.C. 12 from the boisterous Atlantic Ocean. A bleached house named WAVE BREAKER seemed to be stilt-walking into the surf – but, really, the island itself was slipping out from under this cottage in a shrinking subdivision called Mirlo Beach.
“There was a whole development out here, on the seaward side of this house, that had already gone to sea before they started Mirlo Beach,” Riggs said. Then he was cut short as a sneaky wave bathed his boots in foam. He scrambled to keep his balance and scampered away from the surging tide.
“Sea-level rise is pretty gentle, and it’s slow,” Riggs said. “The drivers of this system are storms. If sea level is rising and we don’t have storms, it’s going to go gently. But we do have storms.”
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There’s not much dispute these days, up and down the coast, about whether the ocean is rising. The question is: How high will it go here, and how fast?
North Carolinians must wait until 2016 for an official answer. That’s the law.
After promoters of coastal development attacked a science panel’s prediction that the sea would rise 39 inches higher in North Carolina by the end of this century, the General Assembly passed a law in 2012 to put a four-year moratorium on any state rules, plans or policies based on expected changes in the sea level. The law sets guidelines under which the Coastal Resources Commission, a development policy board for the 20 coastal counties, will formulate a new sea-level prediction to serve as the official basis for state planners and regulators.
The backlash fomented by a conservative coastal group called NC-20 prompted commission members in 2011, most of them Democratic appointees, to reject the 39-inch prediction from the panel of engineers and geologists, including Riggs, that has counseled the commission since the 1990s. A new documentary film, “ Shored Up,” shows anguished commission members imploring their science advisers to somehow “soften” the high-water warning.
Now the 13-member Coastal Resources Commission has a new chairman and eight more new members appointed last year by Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory. The 2012 law says the commission must receive a new draft sea-level prediction from its science panel by March 2015, but the new commission has not asked the science panel to start work.
8 inches by 2100, or 39?
Frank Gorham III of New Hanover County, whose business is drilling for oil and gas in Texas and New Mexico, contributed $8,000 to McCrory’s 2012 campaign. McCrory appointed him chairman of the Coastal Resources Commission in 2013.
Gorham says he has talked informally with science panel members about how to proceed with the new sea-level prediction. And he is hearing from plenty of people who have their own forecasts.
“Everyone thinks because I’m McCrory’s guy and I’m conservative and I’m in the oil-and-gas business, that I’ve already made up my mind. That’s not true. That’s not how I operate,” Gorham said. “People are scared of what it means to economic development. They’re scared of what it means to people who own property.”
A rise in sea level of 39 inches (1 meter) would radically reshape North Carolina’s broad, low-lying coast – submerging most of the Outer Banks, moving shorelines miles inland and threatening an estimated 2,000 square miles with flooding and increased damage from ocean storms. Other coastal states, including Maine, Delaware, Louisiana and California, have been warned to prepare for rises of 1 to 2 meters by 2100.
Coastal leaders say they would have little power to respond on their own, because of laws that in most cases bar local policies that are more restrictive than state laws and rules. Some officials say market forces would have a more far-reaching impact than mere zoning and development rules, as investors adjust their economic calculations to reflect the heightened risk of storms and floods.
Citing trends that show a fairly steady but slow increase in sea levels over the past century, the NC-20 group favors a forecast of only 8 inches of sea-level rise by 2100.
The conflict centers on a projection by the commission’s science panel – consistent with reports from major scientific boards around the world – that warming temperatures will cause ocean waters to expand and the rate of sea-level rise to accelerate. Critics have focused on the acceleration curve, often called a “hockey stick,” in the science panel’s forecast.
The 2012 law was championed by Eastern North Carolina Republicans who distrusted the 39-inch forecast. They said they wanted to make sure that state policy is grounded in solid science and common-sense analysis.
“You can believe whatever you want about global warming,” Rep. Pat McElraft, an Emerald Isle real estate agent who helped sponsor the measure, said in 2012. “But when you go to make planning policies here for our residents and protecting their property values and insurance rates it’s a very serious thing to us on the coast.”
Gorham says he also wants a reliable sea-level prediction rooted in “good science.” And at the outset, he doesn’t buy the arguments for acceleration.
“What I don’t like are hockey-stick projections – where some scientists say that although it has been rising at this level, we think it is going to rise up (faster),” Gorham said. “I don’t like hockey sticks up or hockey sticks down. (But) I’m not saying I’ll disagree with it when we finish the study.”
Building houses higher
Here at the shoreline, local leaders are impatient for an official, consensus projection that will help them come to grips with their future.
“Right now we’re kind of in limbo, and it would be most helpful to know,” said Cliff Ogburn, the Nags Head town manager. “We need to establish a realistic number. Tell us what the number is. We’re willing to incorporate whatever measures we need to, to react.”
That’s not to say beach communities are sitting passively while ocean storms eat up the real estate that fuels their tourism economies.
“Many communities have done things to adapt to sea-level rise already,” said Spencer Rogers, a construction and erosion specialist for N.C. Sea Grant, a coastal research and education program, and a member of the Coastal Resources Commission science panel. “One of the more important adaptation actions is to plan for storm surges.”
About half the state’s coastal communities now require two or three feet of extra elevation, known as freeboard, above the minimum required for construction in flood zones.
And Nags Head recently spent $36 million in local hotel tax receipts – no state or federal money – in a beach renourishment project that dumped sand on 10 miles of the shore and helped cushion the town against damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Three other Dare County shore towns are preparing to do the same, Ogburn said.
He spoke to a busload of visiting journalists from eight states on the anniversary of the Ash Wednesday Storm – a three-day nor’easter in 1962 that killed 40 people and destroyed or damaged 45,000 homes in six coastal states.
Plotting a retreat
Outside, the nor’easter that had begun on Ash Wednesday 2014 was blowing sand into knee-deep drifts that smothered bushes, streets and boardwalks in Nags Head – fed by tons of that beach-nourishing sand that cost the town $5.50 per cubic yard.
“We’re pouring sand onto a beach,” said David Salvesen of the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Sustainable Community Design. “It’s a very dynamic area. There’s no guarantee it’s going to last there.”
Freeboard is a defense against flooding, and renourishment has always been regarded as a buffer against beachfront erosion. But local leaders these days talk about both in terms of sea-level rise.
They also speak, as positively as they can, about a modest philosophy of “retreat” from the advancing sea. This doesn’t mean packing up and heading for the hills. It’s about yielding to the relentless tides – as if there were a real alternative – that, over the past century, have claimed three rows of beach houses in much of Dare County.
Sometimes, beachfront and low-lying houses are moved inland before the ocean takes them. Later, this can be hard to do. Nags Head has fought in court – a losing battle, so far – to force owners to remove the latest houses washing in the surf. The courts say that only the state, not the town, has that authority.
“We just want to protect what we have,” said Nags Head Mayor Bob Edwards. “We’re trying to do both things, to nourish our beach and retreat at the same time.”
Farther south and a few miles from the shore, residents in the low-lying Carteret County community of Marshall have lifted nearly all of their small brick homes and smaller trailers 10 to 12 feet above their soggy yards. The neighborhood was flooded by Hurricane Irene in 2011.
“Whether there’s a law or not,” Riggs said, “these people are thinking about sea-level rise.”
Don’t mention it
These days, sea-level rise and climate change are touchy subjects in state government.
As state Department of Transportation engineers develop a project to widen U.S. 64 in Dare and Tyrrell counties, they plan to build the road 18 inches higher to protect it from the encroaching Albemarle Sound. But, citing the 2012 law, they avoid mention of sea-level rise there – and in their plans to put several miles of N.C. 12 on bridges to protect it from storm damage.
McCrory and John Skvarla, his environment and natural resources secretary, have expressed skepticism about scientific studies that link human activity with global warming. Skvarla’s agency recently removed links and documents about climate change from its website.
Jimmy Johnson oversees a plan to protect sensitive coastal habitat for a state-federal partnership called the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program. Biologists say that rising salt water has killed forest and wetlands around the fringe of the 2-million-acre estuary. Asked at a Harkers Island gathering how scientists and regulators might make use of the official sea-level prediction expected in 2016, Johnson blanched.
“I apologize for being rather evasive, because I have to be,” Johnson said.
Protecting the economy
Dare County Manager Bobby Outten, an NC-20 board member, is trying to soften the strident reputation his group earned two years ago, when its sharp-tongued leaders trashed the science panel and lobbied legislators to censor its work.
“The people that speak for NC-20 – the president, maybe – speak stronger than the membership,” Outten said. “From our perspective at least in Dare County, we’re not prepared to debate whether or not there is climate change. We know there is sea-level rise, because we see it every day.”
NC-20 was organized initially around less polarizing coastal issues involving flood insurance and stormwater rules. Outten says the group attacked the 39-inch sea-level prediction after state and federal officials, whom he did not name, began pressing local governments to respond with expensive measures that would restrict economic development and burden taxpayers needlessly.
“Our view was, you don’t move so quickly and do things that are expensive and cost people money today to plan for something that’s way far, that far in the future,” Outten said. “We are a developed barrier island. We are a county that has embraced that. We see that as protecting the economy and the resources that people have invested here.”
Frank Tursi, assistant director of the N.C. Coastal Federation, a nonprofit education and advocacy group, said the 2012 law prevents government agencies from considering accelerated sea-level rise when they plan for bridges, water lines and other long-term projects.
“The longer that’s delayed, you’re putting more structures and more people in harm’s way,” Tursi said. “More houses are going to be close to the ocean, and roads aren’t going to be as high as they ought to be.”
Spencer Rogers, the N.C. Sea Grant expert, offers a more upbeat perspective.
The science panel figured that the sea would rise about 8 inches in the first 30 years, he said. That’s a combination of 5 inches based on moderate historical trends plus an extra 3 inches as the hockey-stick curve starts to accelerate.
With historic flood and erosion trends already reflected in construction freeboard and setback rules, he said, coastal communities are ready for sea-level changes that can be expected in the next three decades or so. They’ll have time to respond to the new prediction in 2016.
“If they’ve adopted a foot of freeboard now and they see evidence of better science in the future, maybe they’ll go higher than that,” Rogers said. “It’ll get people thinking about the issue.”
This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the nonprofit Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources (ijnr.org).