NC must act now to avoid a disaster as sea levels rise

A section of Hwy 12 at the edge of Rodanthe that was destroyed when Hurricane Irene struck on Aug. 30, 2011.
A section of Hwy 12 at the edge of Rodanthe that was destroyed when Hurricane Irene struck on Aug. 30, 2011. 2011 News & Observer file photo

Somewhere down the road it is likely that the rising sea will provide the first truly

global environmental disaster related to climate change. It will affect millions of people as the seas invade the world’s coastal cities, drown the atoll nations, and devastate much of barrier island and river delta civilizations. Among the lands that will be profoundly affected are the 18 barrier islands fronting the entire North Carolina coast.

In the Dec. 16, 2016 issue of Science Magazine, an insightful article about sea level rise argues that there is a good possibility that it will exceed 6 feet by 2100. The minimum projected likely sea level rise is a bit less than 3 feet. The likely sea level rise of 3 feet will end all development on our barriers and the possible 6-foot rise would destroy what’s left.

Unfortunately the coastal management program of North Carolina is going in the wrong direction, almost as though an important sea level rise isn’t just around the corner. Our management policies are harnessing our future generations to a disaster.

Gov. Cooper’s administration has the opportunity to reverse our direction. In so doing future barrier island development must be designed with the understanding that a significant sea level rise will occur within the lifetime of buildings and infrastructure constructed today and that many near-beach buildings are virtually doomed in coming decades.

The authors of the Science Magazine article argue that preparation for sea level rise should take the long view because planning, financing, building of political consensus and taking action will take years. They also note that if we defend against the maximum sea level rise the cost will be high, but if we ignore such projections the result could be disastrous. In North Carolina we aren’t preparing to defend against any sea level rise.

Guidelines for change

Under the Cooper administration the coastal management program should not only recognize sea level rise but should be focused on sea level rise. The following scientific and engineering principles should guide the new administration’s coastal management program.

• Open-ocean shorelines cannot be held in place in the long term while still preserving a good beach.

• Nourished beaches will become increasingly unstable and hence prohibitively costly as the sea rises.

• Hard shoreline engineering structures (seawalls, groins, jetties, terminal groins) destroy beaches.

• Sandbags are seawalls. Beaches can’t tell the difference.

• Large buildings, especially high-rises, effectively reduce response options and prevent retreat from a rising sea.

The time has come to reverse the state policy of encouraging intensification of development and to plan the path forward in the full light of our understanding of the rising sea. The Cooper administration will primarily have to work through the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and its subsidiary, the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to provide a path to a sounder coastal future.

The DOT needs to stop spending money on improving access to our island communities. Currently they are building or replacing five bridges on our coast making access easier and more development inevitable. Future efforts of the DOT should emphasize getting transportation infrastructure out of nature’s way. For example, more than $50m has been spent to prevent Highway 12 on Pea Island from falling into the sea on the Outer Banks. Better to move it back or replace with ferries.

The CRC must first and foremost take a longer view of the rising sea and trash the ill-considered 30-year 8-inch projected rise that currently governs their actions. They must also stop moving the development line forward, as was recently approved for both Oak Island and Carolina Beach, to allow more beachfront buildings on nourished beaches – an action I consider irrational. The time is long past to encourage beachfront construction! Hopefully homebuyers will be wise enough not to buy such vulnerable buildings.

Other steps

There are many other actions that could be taken by our state. These include prohibition of all large buildings that will hinder any response to sea level rise. Prohibiting reconstruction of storm-damaged buildings; a relatively merciful way of starting a gradual retreat from the coast. This could involve buyouts of the destroyed property, an approach used on Staten Island, New York after Hurricane Sandy in 2014. Closer to home, buyouts of flood prone properties have also proven to be effective in Kinston. As bad as the flooding from Hurricane Matthew was for that area, it would have been much worse had hundreds of homes not been bought out using a mixture of state and federal funds after Hurricane Floyd. Studies show that buyouts of repeatedly flooded properties actually saves money and this can be the first step in retreating from the rising sea.

Orrin H. Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.