Rising waters will dampen economic growth in North Carolina’s coasts—the question is by how much.
Over the past weeks, the Republican-led North Carolina legislature has been debating how to address future increases in sea levels on the state’s eastern coast. House Bill 819, which garnered opposition from state climate scientists, would have mandated that predictions in sea level change could only be derived from historical sea level data, not from scientific projections of climate change.
The bill, drafted and sponsored by House Deputy Majority Whip Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, was approved by the Senate June 12 in a 35-to-12 vote. When it returned to the House the following week, the representatives struck it down 114-to-0, due to significant backlash from the scientific community and residents of coastal counties, McElraft said. Another version of the bill is currently being drafted.
Sea level rise predictions generated by the two methods differ wildly. Whereas predictions based on linear extrapolation using historical data determined that sea levels would only increase eight to 12 inches in the next century, a computer simulation found that the rise of sea levels on the NC coast will accelerate steeply and increase by 39 inches in that time. These findings, determined by a group of state-appointed climate scientists, suggest that 2,000 miles of NC coast land could be in jeopardy.
“An assumption that the sea level will rise in the future only as much as it has risen in the past would lead to an underestimate of sea level change,” said Susan Lozier, professor of physical oceanography. “Underestimates of sea level rise would give coastal communities a false sense of security regarding the survivability of current and planned beach front structures and the safety of their communities during storms, especially hurricanes.”
Lozier, whose research focuses on the ocean’s role in climate variability and climate change, added that predicting sea level changes based only on historical data is analogous to predicting a 30-year-old smoker’s health based solely on his health in the first 30 years of his life, despite knowing the acceleration of smoking health risks. The future does not always resemble the past, she added.
But some organizations such as NC-20, a partnership of businesses, local governments and people of 20 different coastal counties, support the original language. A meter of sea level increase in a century is unrealistic and policies made according to those predictions could hinder the coastal economy, NC-20 wrote in a June 12 press release.
“Thirty-nine inches in 90 years is more than five times the current rate of sea level rise for much of the NC coast,” the release said. “Thirty-nine inches of fake sea level rise would turn thousands of square miles into fake floodplains.”
The organization added that the cost of constructing roads, buildings and public and private infrastructure would escalate dramatically in response to elevated predictions. Heeding the suggestion of scientists would introduce the hidden cost of loss of additional investment in coastal counties.
In response to a 3,000-signature petition from North Carolina residents to amend the bill, McElraft is working to redraft the bill and will present it before the House next week.
The revised bill will require the North Carolina Coastal Resource Commission to continue studying sea level rise for the 100 years after 2016. The state would not be allowed to make decisions based on the 39 inches prediction. The revision would also remove the provision mandating that sea level calculations be based solely on historical data.
“I don’t believe any scientist or group of scientists knows what will happen with sea level rise,” McElraft said. “In the ’70s the activists were crying it was return of the Ice Age—well, we saw that didn’t happen.”