Op-Ed

The only answer to rising seas is to retreat

Community Voices forum focuses on risks and solutions of sea level rise

Sea level rise threatening North Carolina coast, say panelists in Community Voices forum host by The News & Observer and WTVD.
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Sea level rise threatening North Carolina coast, say panelists in Community Voices forum host by The News & Observer and WTVD.

In response to the News & Observer’s recent panel discussion on sea level rise in North Carolina, some have suggested that several communities in North Carolina are taking the right path to prepare for sea level rise. This is absolutely not the case. They seem to assume the shoreline and the communities will remain in place, and thus they are not considering retreat.

Currently, beach nourishment is the preferred solution to holding the shoreline in place to protect development, but beach nourishment will not be possible with a three-foot sea level rise. The alternatives to retreat are eventual beach-less communities with massive seawalls on both sides of the islands.

Except for the timing, there is no controversy among scientists regarding sea level rise. Defending the coast and holding the shoreline in place ultimately will be futile. With a three-foot or a six-foot sea level rise, we will retreat, probably beginning within the next 50 years. Accepting the Paris agreement and reducing our carbon footprint will not change things in this century, as we are locked in to a sea level rise of at least three feet.

The state government as a whole – especially the Coastal Resources Commission – is pursuing policies that essentially ignore sea level rise and in many ways promote increasing development on our barrier islands. We’re building more bridges to islands, and we’re encouraging beachfront development immediately adjacent to nourished beaches. The population, especially in the tourist season, continues to grow, as do the infrastructure and utilities required to maintain this growth.

Some North Carolina communities seem to believe they are beginning to plan for the sea level rise by enforcing elevation and setback regulations, working with flood insurance maps, identifying and informing people of flooding and storm threats, and planning the community’s resilience. Mitigation practices such as raising buildings address storm damage but ultimately do not address the expected sea level rise.

As admirable and important as these plans may be, in reality they have no bearing whatsoever on preparation for the sea level rise. What beach communities must do right now to prepare for the rising sea are the following (none of which are on anyone’s to-do list):

▪  Do not build any more large buildings in beach communities as these structures reduce the flexibility of a community’s response to sea level rise.

▪  Do not rebuild storm-damaged buildings.

▪  Move or demolish buildings that interfere with beach processes, such as the seasonal changes in beach shape.

▪  Do not allow beach nourishment to be the justification for increasing the density of development as this only promotes putting more buildings at risk.

▪  Do not build seawalls if you want a beach for future generations.

▪  Plan now for retreat.

There is no conceivable way to get around the fact that we eventually will have to retreat. There are several ways to retreat, including buying out homes in low-lying, flood-prone areas and returning those areas to a more natural state; demolishing or moving buildings; and not rebuilding storm-damaged buildings. Simply fleeing from the beach by moving buildings one by one away from immediate danger won’t be enough. Planning should include keeping a community as intact as possible. Individual responses won’t maintain the recreational value of the beach and the all-important tourist industry.

Approaches to retreat might be different for different communities. For example, portions of the Outer Banks might disappear in a three-foot sea level rise, and in a number of cases, retreat by the end of this century will have to be to the mainland.

Creative planning for the higher sea level is critical for the preservation of the beach culture that is so important to our state.

Orrin H. Pilkey is a professor emeritus of geology at Duke University. He and Keith C. Pilkey are co-authors of the Columbia University Press book “Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change.”

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