Science, sea level and NC lawmakers

| September 30, 2014

NC 12Editorial by the Greensboro News and Record, September 29, 2014.

Most members of the science panel studying sea levels along North Carolina’s coast are … scientists. This might not have been expected two years ago when Republican state legislators decided they’d rather stick their heads in wet sand than accept dire forecasts of devastating sea-level rise. They rejected any idea that coastal areas might flood to a greater extent in the future than what they’d seen in the past.

The backward-looking attitude, deliberately ignoring predicted effects of climate change, drew nationwide ridicule. That forced a slightly modified approach. The legislature approved a bill calling for a new report limited to a 30-year future time frame. That was problematic, but at least the panel itself was to be composed of people with real expertise.

The group began meeting earlier this year and is scheduled to complete a first draft by Dec. 31. It will be peer-reviewed, then public comments will be accepted. A final version will be presented to the legislature in 2016.

Based on existing models, the panel is likely to predict modest sea-level rise of less than a foot by 2045. Many scientists think the trend will accelerate in the second half of the century, but legislators don’t want to know that part. Nevertheless, the science panel should offer hints.

Its members already know the impact of rising seas. The chairwoman, Dr. Margery Overton of N.C. State’s Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, has been studying shoreline erosion along Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks. Another member, Dr. Stan Riggs of the Department of Geology at East Carolina University, has seen enough to conclude that no more studies are needed. It’s time to act on what’s known now.

Overton’s work offers an example. The Bonner Bridge spanning Oregon Inlet had to be closed for 12 days last December because of erosion around its supports. Yet the state wants to build a replacement bridge at approximately the same, unstable location.

A sea-level rise of 8 to 12 inches over 30 years sounds trivial, but it translates to higher tides when storm surges already wash over low-lying barrier islands and a greater risk of flooding in coastal communities. It makes a difference in how and where new bridges and other structures should be built.

And because many of these structures ideally would serve more than 30 years, it’s important to know what scientists think may happen along the coast further into the future than that.

The science panel can be trusted to do its work with integrity. What happens when the report moves to the legislature will be another matter. Politicians are short-term thinkers. In the short term, coastal interests don’t want to see the value of their investments erode in the face of frightening forecasts. That’s a valid concern. But facing the future with the best possible information is the only sensible strategy. Legislators must pull their heads out of the sand.

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Comments (1)

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  1. Tom Hauck says:

    Thanks for an interesting column.
    Can you advise how many inches or feet the ocean, in front of North Carolina, rose in the past (short term)fifty years and (longer term) one hundred years?

    We know the computer “models” all forecast various ocean level rises and particularly in North Carolina. What has been the forecasting accuracy of these models?