Op-Ed

Sea-level rise is here. North Carolina needs to act.

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

In researching a new book, I’ve looked at studies and reports of studies by hundreds of scientists ranging from field observations in Greenland and Antarctica, to shoreline observations, to modeling studies in laboratories. It is now beyond any doubt that global climate change, including sea-level rise, is upon us.

Scientists have expended tremendous effort to research climate change. We are outraged by the actions of the Trump administration. During his campaign, Trump stunningly declared that global climate change is a hoax. In effect, his claim is that a large part of the American scientific community is carrying out fraudulent research.

Once in office, Trump has followed up on his non-belief in a warming planet by not supporting the Paris Climate Accords, thus forfeiting our global environmental leadership. In addition he has abandoned coal industry regulations, halted NASA’s Carbon Monitoring system, reduced mileage requirements for new cars, and has made other moves that will increase our greenhouse gas contributions to the world’s atmosphere.

Trump’s belief and actions impact on North Carolina by creating an atmosphere of “No hurry, we’ll do it later” in response to events that need immediate action. The Trump administration does not recognize that the longer we delay action, the more difficult our response will be.

Take sea-level rise. It has already arrived in the form of tidal flooding, the highest of all high tides (especially the so-called king tides), which are now higher than ever because of sea-level rise. Front Street in Beaufort, Bay Street in Morehead City and Memorial Street in Nags Head are among examples where king tides have flooded streets on non-windy days. The salt water floods may be a few inches today. But each year they will get a little bit deeper.

So how is North Carolina faring in terms of our response to sea level rise? Not very well. Some communities are discussing the topic but real action remains. On a state level, even less is being done to prepare for the coming rise. Instead coastal development flourishes as more beachfront buildings, highways and bridges are built to ease access to our beautiful beaches. The time has come to recognize that we cannot hold the shoreline still as the level of the sea rises. We should:

Prohibit beachfront development by increasing setback lines.

Raise buildings.

Demolish or move back threatened buildings.

Don’t allow rebuilding of storm-destroyed buildings.

Plan, prepare for and begin an organized retreat from the rising sea.

We can follow the examples of other communities that are taking meaningful actions now to respond to the rising sea. Norfolk, Va., has discouraged development in particularly hazardous portions of the city by declaring them ineligible for any financial aid from the government. New Jersey’s Blue Acres program purchases highly threatened properties, demolishes or moves the buildings, and restores the newly public land to its original state, thus providing flood-absorbing land. Hampton, Va., is doing the same thing. Charleston, S.C., installed a pumping system to reduce tidal flooding, requires new construction to be elevated, and is removing some flood-prone buildings.

The time has come for action on our shoreline. There is no question that the climate will change drastically. It already has. And with that changing climate will come big changes at the shoreline. We used to believe that we could hold the shoreline in place but clearly that is an economic and engineering impossibility.

We must take the long view and respond now to the rising sea in a planned fashion. Currently the unspoken plan is to wait until the situation is catastrophic and then respond. We must begin the retreat now.

Orrin H. Pilkey is a retired Duke University coastal geologist who has written several books about the impact of sea-level rise on the world’s coasts.
  Comments