Ned Barnett

N&O forum will explore rising sea levels and the N.C. coast

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’s called “sunny day flooding.” In normally dry areas of coastal communities, water invades, seemingly without cause. But there is a cause. The sea level is rising and tidal pulls bring water further into low-lying areas.

The flooding is perhaps the only sign of a phenomenon that is otherwise so gradual as to be invisible. But it is here, and it is getting worse. Orrin H. Pilkey, professor emeritus of Earth Sciences at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and an expert on coastal environments, says sea levels in North Carolina could rise by 2 feet in the next 50 years and by 3 to 6 feet in the next 100 years.

In North Carolina, the threat is especially strong. The Outer Banks are in a constant battle with the sea and could be blasted, scoured of development and re-formed by a major hurricane. Meanwhile, on the state’s marshy mainland on the Pamlico Sound, saltwater seeps further inland, challenging municipal water systems, turning freshwater ecosystems brackish and rendering once arable land unsuitable for crops and killing miles of trees.

North Carolina is deeply engaged with the sea, but the state has been slow to recognize and accept what happens when the sea level rises. In part, it is a willful denial. Accepting and preparing for sea-level rise can cut into the profits of coastal development and commerce.

But that denial is getting harder to maintain. The recent pounding of Texas and Florida by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suggests that climate change is producing bigger storms and higher sea levels are causing more flooding. And scientific studies are producing worrisome projections about more frequent flooding. A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that under an “intermediate” scenario 13 communities on North Carolina’s coast will be more than 10 percent flooded at least 26 times a year by 2035. By 2060, as many as 40 communities may be coping with that regular flooding.

Pilkey has the flowing gray beard of an Old Testament prophet, and he sounds like one when it comes to sea-level rise. He is a geological Jeremiah, warning developers and governments that fighting the rising seas can’t save dwindling beaches and barrier islands. Recently, while walking a Nags Head beach with a reporter from WBUR of Boston, he said, “These beaches are doomed. The buildings are doomed, too.”

Pilkey thinks nature must be allowed to take its course, and that means humans should give ground to the sea. “The future,” he said, “is one of retreat.”

Other coastal experts disagree. They think coastal development can adjust to rising sea levels and the effects can be mitigated by improvements in stormwater and drinking water systems and better policies on where and how to build homes.

The News & Observer will explore the facets and the future of this change in the seascape in its next Community Voices forum: “Rising Seas: How will climate change affect the North Carolina coast?” The forum will feature comments by and debate between panel members followed by questions from the audience. The panelists will be:

Orrin Pilkey, who has written extensively on climate change and sea-level rise. He spars with climate-change deniers and is critical of government officials and real estate interests that oppose making the policy and economic adjustments needed in response to higher sea levels. In 2016, he published his latest book on the topic, “Retreat from a Rising Sea.

Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist in the Climate and Energy Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her research focuses on climate change adaptation with practical policy implications for ecosystems, the economy and society. She blogs regularly on climate issues for The Huffington Post.

Todd Miller, founder and executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, a nonprofit that works to preserve clean water and wetlands along the coast. A Carteret County native who grew up in the small community of Ocean, Miller is also a founding board member of Restore America’s Estuaries and currently serves on the Board of Visitors for the UNC Institute for the Environment.

Greg Rudolph is the shore protection manager in Carteret County. A geologist, Rudolph served on the Coastal Resources Commission’s Science Panel, where he was a co-author of the most recent Sea-Level Rise Assessment Report.

Stanley R. Riggs, a professor of geology at East Carolina University who has been doing research on coastal systems since the 1960s. He is a co author of the 2015 book, “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast, Evolutionary History, Present Crisis and Vision for the Future.”

The rising sea is attracting rising interest. I hope you’ll come out to hear and join in this discussion. The forum will be held from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 27, at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. The event is free and open to the public, but please register in advance at

Barnett: 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@

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