North Carolina

It may cost $35 billion to save coastal towns in North Carolina, study says

Whose job is it to save North Topsail Beach?

The Atlantic Ocean is eroding parts of North Topsail Beach by about five feet per year. The town of 800 residents is running out of cash and solutions in its efforts to protect its north shore. Whose job is to save this popular North Carolina tour
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The Atlantic Ocean is eroding parts of North Topsail Beach by about five feet per year. The town of 800 residents is running out of cash and solutions in its efforts to protect its north shore. Whose job is to save this popular North Carolina tour

It could cost almost $35 billion to protect coastal communities in North Carolina from rising sea levels, according to a new study from an environmental advocacy group.

The study from the Center for Climate Integrity calculates how much it would cost to build sea walls to protect coastal communities as climate change raises ocean levels. The study found it would cost more than $400 billion to protect the lower 48 states from rising tides.

North Carolina would be the third most expensive state to protect, with a price tag of $34.8 billion for 5,320 miles of sea walls, the study said.

“For hundreds of small coastal and tidal communities identified in the study, the costs will far outstrip their ability to pay, making retreat and abandonment the only viable option unless enormous amounts of financing emerge in a very short period of time,” the organization said in a press release.

But as The New York Times points out, “The research is limited in that it considers only sea walls, and not other methods for minimizing flood risk that may be more practical in some places, such as moving homes and shops away from the most flood-prone areas.”

“The figures also don’t include the additional and costlier steps that will be required even with sea walls, such as revamping sewers, storm water and drinking water infrastructure,” the Times reports.

But, the Times notes, “The data provides a powerful financial measuring stick for the tough decisions that countless communities — large and small — are starting to confront.”

The Center “partnered with Resilient Analytics, an engineering firm specializing in climate adaptation, and mapping and GIS specialists at the University of Colorado,” the organization said. The Center is an environmental advocacy group with, the organization says, a mission “to make Big Oil and Gas pay their fair share of the damages their products helped cause.”

In Georgia, which the center estimates would need 2,400 miles of seawall, some questioned the organization’s idea of protecting the coast. “Seawalls are not the environmentally preferred option for protecting the shoreline,” Clark Alexander, director of the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In North Carolina, Dare, Hyde and Carteret counties pose the biggest problems, and costs, for protecting communities from rising seas, the study notes.

The most expensive town to protect, according to the study, is North Topsail Beach. The town would need 56 miles of seawall and cost almost $725 million, the study said.

Ocracoke, Holden Beach, Nags Head and Jacksonville are also in the top five for costs, according to the Center.

Nationally, the organization said, “As just one example of the scope and gravity of this problem, in 178 small communities the cost of building basic coastal defenses is more than $100,000 per person.”

“The cost estimates presented here are just a small portion of the total adaptation costs these local and state governments will be forced to finance,” lead project engineer Paul Chinowsky said.

“From extreme weather events, severe heat, heavy rain, drought and flooding to growing impacts on ecosystem and human health, increased risk of wildfires and more, the state of North Carolina will face a much wider range of costs to prepare for climate impacts,” the study’s North Carolina fact sheet said.

The vulnerability of North Carolina’s cost to sea level rise is nothing new. The News and Observer last year reported sea level rise could wipe out property worth more than $580 million in North Carolina, and another $1.1 million in South Carolina.

King tides bring higher-than-average tides ashore through the year in South Carolina. The extreme tides occur when the moon passes close to the earth during it's orbit.

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Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.
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