That ‘more realistic’ sea-level report? Not good news for NC

Maintaining N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks is only going to become more difficult and expensive
Maintaining N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks is only going to become more difficult and expensive AP

There seems to be a grand misimpression that a new sea-level rise report released by the Science Panel of the Coastal Resources Commission is different from a report released in 2010.

Here’s the shocking news: They’re essentially the same. The main difference is that the Science Panel first was asked to look 90 years down the road. The new report looks 30 years down the road. Interestingly enough, the first report includes a projection for 30 years that essentially matches the 30-year projection from the new report.

Any suggestion that the political establishment somehow chastened scientists into producing a “more realistic” report is nonsense. The new report uses the same data sources, plus a few new ones, and the same approach. It even presents the predicted acceleration of sea level rise toward the middle of the century. (Full disclosure, I was an author on the first report but stepped down from the panel before the second report was completed.)

Yes, it is true that the new report includes different projections for the northern and southern North Carolina coast because northeastern North Carolina is subsiding. But the first report clearly acknowledged this difference. Why did the first report choose to use the higher northern Outer Banks rate for its SLR projection? Because the Science Panel was directed by the CRC to report only one number in that report. Had the CRC requested multiple rates, it would have gotten them.

The real lesson from this exercise is that five years of additional data haven’t changed the basic forecasts. Local officials may breathe easier having to look only 30 years down the road, but 6 to 8 inches of sea-level rise are no reason to celebrate. Eastern North Carolina is what we scientists call very, very flat. In fact, it is extra-super very flat. The projected amount of sea level rise will have very real effects on the beaches, estuaries, marshes, cities and farms of Eastern North Carolina.

Here is a given: Every single coastal-management issue that exists today in our great state will get only worse, not better. Maintaining N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks will only become more difficult and more expensive. Every renourished beach will require more sand more frequently. Communities like North Topsail Beach will become insolvent trying desperately to hold their shorelines in place. In some places, finding high-quality sand will become almost impossible.

I am not suggesting that we abandon the coast. I like to take my family to the beach as much as anyone.

But we need a more realistic approach to where it is reasonable to continue to pour public funds. The coastal economy is bigger than the houses on the oceanfront, but local communities spend a tremendous amount of money, time, aggravation and human capital trying to protect existing oceanfront investment property.

North Topsail Beach, for example, has pumped rocks onto its beach and built a massive sandbag and geo-textile wall to protect the value of a relatively small number of properties. To further these efforts, the town has assumed debt including a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan for rural communities. The fact that we all know that sea levels will continue to rise should have the town openly discussing what the end game is.

Town officials have tried to get significant portions of North Topsail Beach removed from the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which prohibits federal funds from flowing into certain coastal communities. But trying to stick federal taxpayers with the bill for protecting property on NTB is not the solution.

The only long-term solution for places like North Topsail Beach is to realize that there will be some sections of oceanfront investment that we will not be able to protect. If we took the dollars being wasted on this losing battle and used them to shore up the amenities of the parts of NTB that will be viable far into the future, wouldn’t that be a better use of public funds?

As sea level rise continues, many communities will have to face these questions. Certain sections of oceanfront will become very expensive to keep a beach in front of. Communities need to plan now for how they can change their vulnerability footprint in a way that will not waste public funds and will preserve the local economy for everyone – including the small hotel owner three blocks away from the beach. That hotel owner needs a high-quality public beach for the use of guests, not to preserve the value of every oceanfront home.

So, my advice is this: Breathe your sigh of relief about the new sea-level-rise report and then get down to business creating a realistic vision for how to manage the coastal economy during the challenges of the next few decades.

Robert S. Young, Ph.D., is a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.