|By Bruce Siceloff, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
He climbed down from the ridge of a DOT-built dune narrowly separating
"There was a whole development out here, on the seaward side of this house, that had already gone to sea before they started
"Sea-level rise is pretty gentle, and it's slow," Riggs said. "The drivers of this system are storms. If sea level is rising and we don't have storms, it's going to go gently. But we do have storms."
There's not much dispute these days, up and down the coast, about whether the ocean is rising. The question is: How high will it go here, and how fast?
North Carolinians must wait until 2016 for an official answer. That's the law.
After promoters of coastal development attacked a science panel's prediction that the sea would rise 39 inches higher in
The backlash fomented by a conservative coastal group called NC-20 prompted commission members in 2011, most of them Democratic appointees, to reject the 39-inch prediction from the panel of engineers and geologists, including Riggs, that has counseled the commission since the 1990s. A new documentary film, " Shored Up," shows anguished commission members imploring their science advisers to somehow "soften" the high-water warning.
Now the 13-member
8 inches by 2100, or 39?
Gorham says he has talked informally with science panel members about how to proceed with the new sea-level prediction. And he is hearing from plenty of people who have their own forecasts.
"Everyone thinks because I'm McCrory's guy and I'm conservative and I'm in the oil-and-gas business, that I've already made up my mind. That's not true. That's not how I operate," Gorham said. "People are scared of what it means to economic development. They're scared of what it means to people who own property."
A rise in sea level of 39 inches (1 meter) would radically reshape
Coastal leaders say they would have little power to respond on their own, because of laws that in most cases bar local policies that are more restrictive than state laws and rules. Some officials say market forces would have a more far-reaching impact than mere zoning and development rules, as investors adjust their economic calculations to reflect the heightened risk of storms and floods.
Citing trends that show a fairly steady but slow increase in sea levels over the past century, the NC-20 group favors a forecast of only 8 inches of sea-level rise by 2100.
The conflict centers on a projection by the commission's science panel -- consistent with reports from major scientific boards around the world -- that warming temperatures will cause ocean waters to expand and the rate of sea-level rise to accelerate. Critics have focused on the acceleration curve, often called a "hockey stick," in the science panel's forecast.
The 2012 law was championed by
"You can believe whatever you want about global warming," Rep.
Gorham says he also wants a reliable sea-level prediction rooted in "good science." And at the outset, he doesn't buy the arguments for acceleration.
"What I don't like are hockey-stick projections -- where some scientists say that although it has been rising at this level, we think it is going to rise up (faster)," Gorham said. "I don't like hockey sticks up or hockey sticks down. (But) I'm not saying I'll disagree with it when we finish the study."
Building houses higher
Here at the shoreline, local leaders are impatient for an official, consensus projection that will help them come to grips with their future.
"Right now we're kind of in limbo, and it would be most helpful to know," said
That's not to say beach communities are sitting passively while ocean storms eat up the real estate that fuels their tourism economies.
"Many communities have done things to adapt to sea-level rise already," said
About half the state's coastal communities now require two or three feet of extra elevation, known as freeboard, above the minimum required for construction in flood zones.
He spoke to a busload of visiting journalists from eight states on the anniversary of the
Plotting a retreat
Outside, the nor'easter that had begun on
"We're pouring sand onto a beach," said
Freeboard is a defense against flooding, and renourishment has always been regarded as a buffer against beachfront erosion. But local leaders these days talk about both in terms of sea-level rise.
They also speak, as positively as they can, about a modest philosophy of "retreat" from the advancing sea. This doesn't mean packing up and heading for the hills. It's about yielding to the relentless tides -- as if there were a real alternative -- that, over the past century, have claimed three rows of beach houses in much of
Sometimes, beachfront and low-lying houses are moved inland before the ocean takes them. Later, this can be hard to do.
"We just want to protect what we have," said
Farther south and a few miles from the shore, residents in the low-lying
"Whether there's a law or not," Riggs said, "these people are thinking about sea-level rise."
Don't mention it
These days, sea-level rise and climate change are touchy subjects in state government.
"I apologize for being rather evasive, because I have to be," Johnson said.
Protecting the economy
"The people that speak for NC-20 -- the president, maybe -- speak stronger than the membership," Outten said. "From our perspective at least in
NC-20 was organized initially around less polarizing coastal issues involving flood insurance and stormwater rules. Outten says the group attacked the 39-inch sea-level prediction after state and federal officials, whom he did not name, began pressing local governments to respond with expensive measures that would restrict economic development and burden taxpayers needlessly.
"Our view was, you don't move so quickly and do things that are expensive and cost people money today to plan for something that's way far, that far in the future," Outten said. "We are a developed barrier island. We are a county that has embraced that. We see that as protecting the economy and the resources that people have invested here."
"The longer that's delayed, you're putting more structures and more people in harm's way," Tursi said. "More houses are going to be close to the ocean, and roads aren't going to be as high as they ought to be."
The science panel figured that the sea would rise about 8 inches in the first 30 years, he said. That's a combination of 5 inches based on moderate historical trends plus an extra 3 inches as the hockey-stick curve starts to accelerate.
With historic flood and erosion trends already reflected in construction freeboard and setback rules, he said, coastal communities are ready for sea-level changes that can be expected in the next three decades or so. They'll have time to respond to the new prediction in 2016.
"If they've adopted a foot of freeboard now and they see evidence of better science in the future, maybe they'll go higher than that," Rogers said. "It'll get people thinking about the issue."
This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the nonprofit
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or newsobserver.com/roadworrierblog Twitter: @Road_Worrier
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