Sea Level Rise Adaptation Discussions Underway in North Carolina

Guest Blog | February 11, 2010 | Energy Policy
nc-beachLast month, I had the opportunity to attend a sea level rise forum in Raleigh, NC organized by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources; Division of Coastal Management.  The purpose of this forum was to discuss the latest sea level rise science, what it means for North Carolina’s coastal communities and how the state can begin to prepare for the changes to come.

The two day event boasted an impressive line-up of expert speakers from around the country.  Over 200 local and state decision makers, scientists, planners, engineers and environmental advocates participated in this event that seemed to foster true collaboration between all involved.  This forum was just one step in a series that the Division of Coastal Management (DCM) plans to take to understand and plan for future sea level rise.

Public Perceptions of Rising Seasuntitled-image-1

Last year the DCM issued a 10-question scoping survey to gauge public perception about rising seas.  During the forum Tancred Miller, Coastal Policy Analyst with the DCM, shared with the audience their results.  Interestingly, 75% of participants believe sea level rise is happening and 66% believe that the state should take action now to plan and prepare for future sea level rise.

The results of this survey will be used as a communications tool to help the DCM design public outreach opportunities and to address the gaps in the public’s understanding of this issue.  This sea level rise forum was the second step in the DCM’s “sea level rise roadmap” (see diagram); their clear path forward  to address this issue in the state.  To read the full report and analysis click here.

“Potential Death Sentence” for North Carolina Beaches

riggs_ncbeachurbanizedAccording to Dr. Stanley Riggs, Distinguished Professor of Geology at East Carolina University, most North Carolina beaches are eroding at a long term average of 15 feet/year.  This rapid rate of erosion coupled with rising seas and a limited offshore sand supply to replenish the beaches creates a “potential death sentence” for the future of the state’s barrier island communities.

“Humans are just as impactful as storms”, Dr. Riggs explained.  Because we have heavily urbanized our coastlines we have essentially stopped the natural migration of barrier island ecosystems; the environments that naturally protect human development from storm surges.

Shocking Statistics from Dr. Riggs:

*  Somewhere between 350 and 500 houses on NC beaches are sandbagged and/or in danger of washing away.

*  Twenty-four miles of coastal highway are collapsing and 100+ miles are threatened.

Dr. Riggs made a big push for responsible coastal planning and development by ending his presentation posing the following question:

“We have a choice”, said Dr. Riggs.  “Should we engineer our dynamic coastal system to keep up with the ongoing rise in sea level or should we begin adapting to these changes now to maintain a sustainable coastal system and associated economy?”

Future Sea Level Rise Estimates for North Carolina

There were more than a few scientists at this forum that addressed past, present and future sea level rise changes in North Carolina.  Estimates were taken from numerous resources including Intergovernmental sand-fencePanel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments and various peer-reviewed studies.  All of the most recent studies conclude that sea level is rising much faster than predicted.

Scientists like Dr. Gordon Hamilton, Research Professor at the University of Maine, explained that the range in estimates that are out there on sea level rise depend on how the model accounts for changes in ice sheet dynamics.  Ice sheets are extremely sensitive; they can decay rapidly in non-linear ways which leads to uncertainty in sea level rise estimates.

“The general consensus since the IPCC’s latest assessment in 2007 is that we can expect at the very least, 1 meter of global sea level rise by the end of the century.”

– Dr. Gordon Hamilton

The Dialogue Continues

What will ultimately determine the fate of North Carolina’s coastal communities, ecosystems and associated economies will depend on how the state and her residents choose to mitigate and adapt to rapidly rising seas and a changing climate.  The Division of Coastal Management along with all of their partners should be applauded by the dialogue that they have started and have committed to continuing in the state.

There is a lot of activity going on in North Carolina on the topic of sea level rise, adaptation and mitigation and the state is positioning itself to be a  leader in our region in forward-thinking planning that accounts for global warming impacts to our treasured coastal places.

Additional Resources

* Workshop on March 2nd and 3rd, 2010: Planning for North Carolina’s Future; Ask the Climate Question
* SACE Archive Webinar: “Planning to Protect: Helping SE Communities think about Adaptation”
* Video: “Treasured Places in Peril: The Outer Banks
* New Resource: NOAA Climate Services

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