Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Nature faces off against politics in North Carolina

As local politicians underestimate rising sea levels, coastal communities are coming up with their own plans.

RALEIGH, N.C. — During the early morning hours of May 2, part of the northbound lane of North Carolina Highway 12 in Kitty Hawk broke off and washed into the Atlantic Ocean.

While the loss of 200 feet of roadway and about 500 feet of a protective sand berm will be temporary, it was more than just another hit to the road from a big spring storm at high tide under a full moon. In a state that has been engaged in a highly charged, highly politicized debate about climate change for more than five years, it was a reminder that the Atlantic isn’t waiting to see who wins the argument.

It was also a reminder that North Carolina, with its rapidly developing coastline and intricate ecological network of sounds and estuaries, has a lot at stake as sea levels rise. The state has more than 300 miles of direct coastline and thousands of miles of tidal areas. Like much of the Southeastern U.S. coast, commercial and residential development is growing more concentrated on barrier islands that move over time, rolling over themselves and drifting toward and away from the mainland with the rise and fall of the sea.

Given the nature of the North Carolina coast and the intense energy of waves in the Atlantic, official public policy has been not to try to fight the ocean but to deal with its effects. Since the early 1980s the state has prohibited hardened structures like seawalls and jetties. Only recently has it allowed construction of a small number of jetties to protect areas threatened by heavy erosion and to keep inlets clear for boat traffic.

Coastal scientists have conducted extensive modeling on North Carolina’s inlets and coastline and for more than a decade have looked for ways to include analyses of the impact of rising sea levels in their models.

In 2010 the state’s Coastal Resources Commission asked a panel of coastal scientists to study the rate of sea level rise and predict what the coast might look like at the end of the century. But the panel’s report, which said that North Carolina’s coast could see waters rise by as much as a meter by 2100, caused an intense backlash — and not just among climate change denialists but also from coastal developers, landowners and the state’s politically powerful real estate lobby. 

Legislature gets involved

North Carolina’s debate over rising sea levels took place as the state legislature changed hands and as, over two election cycles, the Republican majority grew to supermajorities in the state House and Senate. In November 2012, the sweep was completed when Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor.

The next year, the legislature abruptly ended the terms of nearly all members of the state’s environmental policy boards, including the Coastal Resources Commission, which was charged with overseeing the issue of sea level rise.

Surfers David Grimes (L) and William Troy walk down the beach on July 3, 2014 while mandatory evacuation orders are in effect for Rodanthe, North Carolina.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

That gave McCory and the legislature the opportunity to appoint a new chairman and an almost entirely new board. In August 2013 he chose Frank Gorham to chair the commission. Gorham, who owns a home on the private Figure Eight Island and is a principal in an oil and gas business, proposed that the revised report of the commission’s science panel look only 30 years into the future instead of 90, as the previous study did.

The panel’s 43-page revised report was completed earlier this year and approved for public comment by the Coastal Resources Commission last month. A final set of recommendations will be sent to the legislature, which has final say on the matter, no later than March 31, 2016.

The report’s key findings show that for five coastal regions in North Carolina, the rate of sea level rise by 2045 will range from 2.4 inches along the southernmost coast to 5.4 inches in the northern region, according to historic data from tidal gauges in the areas. Those numbers, however, don’t factor in climate change, and they increase dramatically when land subsidence and high levels of greenhouse gases are taken into account. In that scenario, levels jump to 6.9 inches in the south to 8.1 inches in the northern region.

Even before it came out, the report drew criticism not for the science but because the 30-year limit allowed the state to sidestep investigating the long-term effects of climate change.

In a recent column for The Raleigh News and Observer, professor Robert Young, a member of the 2010 science panel and a former member of the most recent panel, said the 30-year time frame cuts off the point when historical models diverge greatly from those predicting accelerated sea level rise due to climate change.

Young, who teaches coastal geology at Western Carolina University, said the 30-year predictions are no reason to celebrate. “Local officials may breathe easier having to look only 30 years down the road,” he wrote, “but 6 to 8 inches of sea-level rise are no reason to celebrate.”

Spencer Rogers, a coastal construction and engineering specialist who served on the panel, said that dividing the coast into regions produced a more accurate report than the previous one. He agreed, however, that the 30-year cutoff paints an incomplete picture.

“After that, the acceleration gets a whole lot faster,” he said, adding that when it comes to long-term planning, like deciding where to build a hospital, a power plant or any public infrastructure with a long life span, 30 years is not a useful time frame.

We need to be planning for and adapting to an accelerated rate of sea level rise. Instead of leadership on the issue, this administration has buried it.

Molly Diggins

State Director of the North Carolina Sierra Club

It is doubtful that when the sea level rise report is presented to the legislature next year, the debate over climate change and its implications will be any less intense.

In this year’s session of the legislature, few coastal issues were discussed without at least one jab at climate science. In April alone, the topic came up in an agriculture committee during a discussion of new soil science, in a meeting on insurance law changes and in hearings on dredging and port improvements. At all three, it was clear that some legislators remain skeptical.

The controversy over the sea level rise provisions in 2012 failed to chasten climate change skeptics in the legislature. New federal regulations on carbon emissions are also drawing fire among state legislators, since they run afoul of a push by the legislature and the McCrory administration to open up the state to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas exploration in the center of the state and to oil and gas exploration offshore. He still has not taken a direct stand on climate change science. During a news conference after an oil and gas exploration conference last year, he mentioned the need to improve coastal infrastructure because of “changing weather patterns” in response to a question about how to spend royalties from offshore drilling.

The Sierra Club’s state director, Molly Diggins, said the governor is ducking the issue when he should be leading. “We need to be planning for and adapting to an accelerated rate of sea level rise,” she said. “Instead of leadership on the issue, this administration has buried it. We seem to be intent on not being ready for what’s already happening.”

Local Pragmatism

Beyond the political debate, there’s an understanding in coastal communities that acknowledging and planning for sea level rise is the prudent thing to do.

In Dare County, where the combination of rising sea levels and land subsidence is predicted to result in dramatic change, planning for the effects is already in the works. County spokeswoman Dorothy Hester said the political debate has had “little or no effect” on Dare’s planning efforts. “The county’s hazard mitigation plan recognizes that sea level rise may impact the frequency and severity of hazards from natural events like floods, hurricanes, nor’easters and coastal erosion,” she said.

Homes along the coast of the Outer Banks in Rodanthe, North Carolina, on June 12, 2014.
Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Down the coast in Wilmington, Phil Prete, the city’s senior environmental planner, said that although it has no beachfront, planners are trying to understand how sea level rise will affect flood-prone areas and tidal creeks. Wilmington recently partnered with the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the vulnerability of its water and wastewater infrastructure, using the calculations from the original science panel report.

“It gave us a really good assessment and some strategies to look at,” he said. “It also provided us with a template to apply to other aspects.” He added the most recent report hasn’t had a major effect on the city’s plans and said that the 30-year time frame might make sense when thinking about a mortgage but that cities need to plan far beyond that.

“There are plenty of decisions being made today on things with a life span of 50 to 100 years,” he said. “To just pull the blinds at 30 years limits the ability to plan beyond that.”

There’s also a practical side to planning for climate change: It’s where the money is.

This year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) added requirements for climate change planning to its hazard mitigation grant program, which provides several million dollars annually for state and local projects in North Carolina. To qualify for the program and the grants available through it, plans now must contain projections of the effects of sea level rise in areas that might be at risk.

Under McCrory’s immediate predecessor, Democrat Bev Perdue, the state’s 2010 hazard mitigation plan included a small section on climate change and promised a full review in the next version. That version, released in 2013, after McCrory took office, contained no references to climate change. Under the new rules, in the next update, due in 2018, the state won’t have a choice.

The new federal requirements tie in to FEMA’s resilient communities program, which grew out of the response to Hurricane Sandy and encourages communities to rebuild differently and in less flood-prone areas.

The changes also come as federal funding for beach renourishment and inlet dredging has dropped, shifting more of the cost to state and local governments. Such projects are essential to coastal tourism and the recreational fishing industry, but as federal aid falls, the expenditures are receiving more scrutiny from area taxpayers.

And then there’s NC 12.

The iconic, two-lane ribbon that stretches down the Outer Banks is probably the most visible intersection of sea level rise and public policy. Keeping the road open and maintained has been a costly struggle since it was first paved in the 1950s. As the recent washout in Kitty Hawk illustrates, it doesn’t take a hurricane to cause significant damage.

When a hurricane or significant storm hits, the damage can be extensive and expensive. In 2011, after Hurricane Irene blew out an inlet that had been closed since 1945, the state Department of Transportation spent more than $10 million reopening the road with a temporary bridge. Officials estimate that a new bridge would cost more than $200 million. They have also identified at least four other spots along the road that need work.

With sea level rise likely to exacerbate an already tenuous situation, each new washout raises the question of when the highway will become a lost cause.

Rogers, the coastal engineer, said the impact of rising seas will be felt along the coast primarily through more frequent flooding. He added that the controversy over the sea level reports has given a false impression that nothing is being done. Although coastal towns are often not directly motivated by worries about climate change, he said that many have tightened building rules and height requirements in recent years.

“To put it in perspective, some of the things we’ve already done might have dealt with some of [the effects of climate change],” he said. By the next sea level rise report in five years, he said, there might be an even clearer picture of what to expect.

To live on the coast, he said, you have to adapt to survive.

“People have gotten creative along the way,” he said. “That’s probably not going away.”

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