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Kelly Henderson’s Blog

North Carolina Makes Sea Level Rise "Illegal" in Coastal Communities Despite Scientific Evidence

Kelly Henderson

Posted June 14, 2012

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Summer is here -- a time for many people to pack up their cars and head to the beach to spend a relaxed week away from the hustle-bustle and take in the sandy berm and rolling waves at their toes. As a native Virginian, I have spent many summers at Virginia Beach near Norfolk, a popular tourist destination for many D.C. and Richmond folks. I also lived in Wilmington, North Carolina for four years where I was able to enjoy the pristine coastline of the Outer Banks as well as Wrightsville, Kure and Carolina Beaches. The Outer Banks have become a staple of many family beach vacations and a popular destination for those seeking a calmer, less-touristy beach experience.

Unfortunately, the Outer Banks, along with Virginia Beach and other coastal communities, do not have a definite future as sea levels are continuing to rise at a greater rate than ever before due to climate change. Scientists are predicting an economy-destroying, 39-inch sea level rise in North Carolina by 2100. This change in sea level would be enough to put much of the North Carolina coastline underwater. The map below comes from an EPA study, which developed county-scale elevation maps to illustrate vulnerability to sea level rise, using existing data. The dark green indicates the one-meter (or 39 inch) contour line for much of the Carolina coast that will be underwater when tides rise by one meter.

Thumbnail image for 1m_NC_Elev_noNTW_300dpi.jpg

The scientific evidence is clear that if we want to keep our beaches in line for generations to come, we need to start acting now to better prepare for the rising sea levels. To learn more about what some coastal communities are and are not doing to address this issue, read NRDC’s Water program’s recent report, “Ready or Not: How Water Ready is Your State?”. However, as the report indicates, some coastal communities are not prepared to deal with this change. The scientific findings that North Carolina coasts will likely experience a 39-inch sea-level rise created quite a stir and were challenged by NC-20, a coastal economic development group, who cited flaws in the research. The group fears losing dollars if coastal planning begins now to prepare for the 39-inch rise since over 2,000 coastal miles will become restricted to development.

NC-20 Chairman Tom Thompson cites the reasoning as, “If you’re wrong and you start planning today at 39 inches, you could lose millions of dollars in development and 2,000 square miles would be condemned as a flood zone. Is it really a risk to wait five years and see?”

Yes, it is. Not sure about you, but I know I would rather plan now than see my Wilmington friends’ beach house underwater within the next 90 years. As a self-proclaimed beach bum, I believe it is imperative to start planning now for the projected coastal changes expected to happen within the next century. While we may not be around to witness the end-result, future generations should be able to enjoy similar (if not the same) pristine beaches we have been so fortunate to grow up with.

Stephen Colbert took on North Carolina legislators' suggestion to “ignore” rising sea levels on "The Colbert Report" on Monday June 5th, saying, "If your science gives you a result you don't like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved." Maybe Colbert will get through to someone in North Carolina’s legislature…


The Colbert Report

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BSJun 14 2012 09:08 PM

You continue to claim that sea levels are rising faster even though they are not.

The rate of sea level rise has actually decreased over the past 6+ years, offsetting the 1990s that is always shown as "proof" that sea levels are rising faster.

You're basically lying to your readers. Why?

BSJun 15 2012 11:54 AM


That type of data you referenced doesn't show any strong evidence of an increasing rate of rise. It seems to suggest that the rate of rise is highly variable from one year to the next, making the 1977-present averages variable enough that a clear change in trend is difficult to confirm or deny. But if it is increasing, I understand that NC is going to use historical data, which means they would take those increases into account.

In any case, the rate of rise being predicted is about 12mm (1/2 inch) per year between now and 2100. That's a 4x increase in the rate of sea level rise. As I said before, looking globally, there is no evidence that global warming is causing any change at all in the rate of increase. That means that the extreme increases forecast by climate scientists holds no water (pun intented).

If the evidence did exist, I'm sure the NRDC would be quick to show it to refute what I am saying.

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