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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Relax, Outer Banks: NC state legislature outlaws sea level rise

Kaid Benfield

Posted July 9, 2012

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  Outer Banks near Duck, NC (via Google Earth)

Sometimes, you just can’t make this stuff up.  It’s really embarrassing for me to write this, but the legislature of my native North Carolina has made it illegal for public officials to consider current rates of sea level rise as they plan for the future.  And, no, I did not get this from The Onion.

It’s like this:  as you can see from the image, coastal North Carolina – especially the Outer Banks north of the protected Cape Hatteras National Seashore – is overdeveloped.  Way overdeveloped.  And on the Outer Banks there is almost no land more than 20 feet above sea level, and lots of development at lower elevations precariously close to sea level.  Those properties may not be worth much for still more development if climate scientists’ latest forecasts of rising sea levels – 1.2-1.3 meters, or about 4 feet, by 2100 – come true.  Investors and insurers, in particular, along with state infrastructure planners, might be advised to look for other places to put their dollars.

It’s not just the Outer Banks, of course.  There is lots of vulnerable, low-lying coastal land along Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds in between the Outer Banks and the mainland, as well as coastline along the Atlantic Ocean in the southeastern part of the state.  Everything you see in dark green on the map below would be under water with even a one-meter rise.

This is obviously a problem if you’re looking to squeeze in a few dozen more second or third homes on the Outer Banks or a new subdivision around, say, New Bern or Morehead City.  So the legislators cooked up an adaptation strategy of sources.  Wade Rawlins writes for Reuters:

effects of sea level rise on coastal NC (by: US EPA)“Lawmakers in North Carolina, which has a long Atlantic Ocean coastline and vast areas of low-lying land, voted on Tuesday to ignore studies predicting a rapid rise in sea level due to climate change and postpone planning for the consequences . . .

“Backed by real estate developers, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a law requiring that projected rates of sea level rise be calculated on historical trends and not include accelerated rates of increase.

“North Carolina is among the states most vulnerable to sea level rise with its long coastline and thousands of square miles of low-lying land. A 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey says sea levels along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts are rising three to four times faster than the global average. Global sea level rise has been projected to rise two to three feet by the end of the 21st century, but in hot spots, the increase may be greater.”

State Representative Pat McElraft pointed out in floor debate that the historical rate of sea level rise had been only 8 inches over the last century, which he believes should be the assumed rate of further rise for planning and state investment purposes. 

Before final passage, the state Senate eked out a compromise of sorts with the more aggressive House of Representatives, limiting the prohibition against considering more recent forecasts to four years, while the Coastal Resources Commission updates its predictions with a new study.  The new study must not only look at the acceleration scenario predicted by most scientists but also the possibility of “sea-level fall, no movement in sea level, [or] deceleration of sea-level rise.”  Between now and July 2016, state agencies may not consider the possibility of accelerated sea level rise in decision-making.

  flooding on the Outer Banks in 2006 (by: Lori Wright, creative commons)

  2006 flood on the Outer Banks

Leigh Phillips writes for Nature that, since the initial version of the bill was passed last month by the state House of Representatives, new research has been released pointing out that sea level has been rising at an accelerated rate along the North Carolina coast compared to historical trends and three to four times faster than the global average since 1980.  Researchers suggest that the apparent “hot spot” of rapid sea level rise along the Carolina coast may be due to localized variations in currents and land movements that change water temperature, salinity and density.

In her blog, my colleague Kelly Henderson quotes Tom Thompson, chair of a coastal development group that supported the legislation, as saying that a sea level rise of one meter (this was before the latest study predicting a higher rise) would mean “you could lose millions of dollars in development and 2,000 square miles would be condemned as a flood zone.”  Thompson, whose organization obviously has a financial interest in the outcome, argues that it would be unwise to delay investment while a new study is conducted.

  2009 storm on the Outer Banks (by: Bryan Elkus, creative commons)

  2009 storm on the Outer Banks

For me, that's a decision that private investors and state scientific and planning officials should decide for themselves, looking at all the evidence, not just the evidence that Thompson and his champions in the state legislature believe is in their favor.  Call me crazy, but I trust the scientists more than the politicians to decide which oceanic data and forecasts should and should not be considered. 

North Carolina’s governor has not indicated whether she will sign the bill.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Rob WJul 9 2012 12:05 PM

Typical left-leaning commentary, Kaid.

If you are so worried about this so-called sea level rise (yeah, Right), don't you realize that it is just as easy for these beacons of progress to also outlaw hurricanes in NC? {As if hurricanes cause flooding!}


And I can't imagine it's all that difficult for these fine representatives to likewise order that any sea level rises elsewhere in the Atlantic Ocean must divert themselves away from the N C coastline. Problems solved!

Duh again!

What planet do you live on? (Obviously not the same one as those NC legislators ... no wonder you are so confused.)

Try a little fact-free delusion before you write your next commentary, Kaid. It's very liberating, and eliminates a LOT of worrying....

Kirk RossJul 9 2012 12:58 PM

If you want to hear some of the debate there's an audio link with this story.
It's something to behold.

M MyersJul 9 2012 03:11 PM

Another global warming kook.

Kim FowlerJul 9 2012 06:10 PM

The scientific process of natural selection is in full effect here, and from an devolutionary point of view, those regulators and coastal residents can all learn how to swim again, can't they?

BSJul 9 2012 07:30 PM

If NRDC has any evidence that rate of sea level rise is increasing, I'd love to see it.

SLR ExpertJul 10 2012 07:21 AM


I'm assuming that you are a well-intentioned individual, which makes it hard to understand why you have so many factual errors in your piece.

Your article is constructed on sand as "the legislature of my native North Carolina has made it illegal for public officials to consider current rates of sea level rise as they plan for the future" is a totally false claim.

The fact is just the opposite: they wanted to require state agencies to use current (and past) rates of SLR in their planning.

There are so many other inaccurate statements that it might be best to start over.

Steve JamesJul 10 2012 08:56 AM

We are being attacked from a new front. Global Warming Catastrophy. Scientists with failed scientific models of imminent and massive destruction are desceding upon governments in areas that have always been sensitive to natural disasters. More hurricanes, more tornadoes, more floods, more earthquakes. And when one happens they sit back and say "we told you so". If sea-level rise in North Carolina is 8" per century and science is predicting 48" with no measurable acceleration in sea-level - it's time to get better science. Fire the scientists.

Steve HansenJul 10 2012 03:57 PM

Sincere question here: the developers do not wish to wait for further study. Does this mean that, as new development proceeds, the profits are privatized and the risks are socialized in the form of government bailouts to property owners?

Bill PriceJul 12 2012 09:47 AM

Regarding NC Sea Level Rise Law

NC Lawmakers base Laws on Facts, not Fiction or Comedy.
CRC’s Scientists have declined to answer questions on their Science Report since Feb.  2011. Why?
One CRC Scientist said, in effect, that it was better to be fast and cheap,,  than accurate.
NC Lawmakers disagreed. They want to be accurate,,,, 
before the CRC starts passing rules to take local people’s property.   

Bill Price   Pine Knoll Shores 

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