An Opinion Article Submitted to the N&O

In Hot Water

We can imagine that the prospect of rising sea levels doesn’t get much of a rise out of legislators in, say, Kansas. Ground subsidence because of over-pumping from aquifers? Maybe.

But in North Carolina, locked in an intimate relationship with the Atlantic Ocean, whether the ocean’s average height will rise, and if so how much, and if so by when, are questions of huge import and interest. Legislators have had their minds concentrated by forecasts that sea levels could climb on the order of 1 meter, or 39 inches, by the end of this century.

A rise of that magnitude would change the look and character of coastal North Carolina – mainland beach communities, soundside fishing villages, surely the Outer Banks. Land now developed or developable would either be flooded or at such risk as to drastically limit owners’ options.

No wonder the 39-inch estimate by a scientific panel for the state Coastal Resources Commission has drawn skeptical scrutiny. Certainly any prediction meant to peer 88 years into the future is prone to second-guessing. In that spirit, and responding to concerns about possible development restrictions, the state Senate approved a bill to cap any officially projected sea level rise at 8 inches – reflecting historical trends but not the accelerated rate of rise scientists envision because of global warming.

Too, bad, though, that the Atlantic doesn’t take its marching orders from the legislative head shed on Jones Street.

Along comes the U.S. Geological Survey with findings that suggest North Carolina is on the southern end of a “hot spot” for sea-level rise – a pattern already yielding rates of rise up to four times greater than the global average.

That may run counter to the layman’s notion that sea levels remain, well, level. But there already were expectations that levels would rise abnormally along the northeastern Atlantic coast because of warming-induced changes in ocean currents. Now the USGS has documented accelerated rise between Boston and Cape Hatteras in readings that date to around 1990.

That could be the cue that Rep. Pat McElraft has been waiting for. The Emerald Isle Republican certainly wouldn’t want to see the coastal economy locked down because the sea looks to be rising inconveniently and might rise even faster in coming decades. But she is steering toward a more sensible position than her Republican colleagues in the Senate.

Perhaps unwilling to expose themselves to the sarcastic barbs that stung senatorial hides, House members unanimously rejected the Senate’s 8-inch-rise measure (which had been grafted onto a bill sponsored by McElraft). Now McElraft, who was named to head a conference committee, is aiming for a compromise.

The committee’s approach also would spurn the 39-inch forecast as a basis for setting state policy. But neither does it insist, as the Senate did, that any sea-level rise projection must ignore the possibility that the rate of rise could increase. It calls for the Coastal Resources Commission to take another look at the issue over the next three or four years.

That seems like a reasonable way for the state to more firmly come to grips with a threat that, even if it’s dire in the long run, will take effect gradually. There will be time to make any necessary adjustments in land use rules and construction standards before the water comes up.

Still, it’s no fun to imagine conditions in the sea-level hotspot as decades play out. Asbury Sallenger Jr., who led the USGS study, predicts that first off, storm-driven waves and tides will do more damage. Hurricane Irene on steroids? Better not hold off too long on planning for how to get out of the way.


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