Beaufort, North Carolina
June 19-20, 2013
On June 4, 2012, Stephen Colbert did what the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission could not: he made sea level rise sexy. In a five-and-a-half-minute spot titled “Sink or Swim,” Colbert poked fun at NC-20, a conservative group that pushed the NC state legislature to introduce a bill that would ban state agencies from considering anything more than historical data on sea level rise in future planning.
Colbert mocked NC-20’s logic with a pointed metaphor: “ If we consider only historical data, I’ve been alive my entire life, therefore I always will be.”
The Coastal Resources Commission’s recommendation was to plan for 39 inches of sea level rise, based on a combination of observations at tide gauges in North Carolina and global climate models that predict acceleration of sea level rise based on the observation in the 20th century that rising temperatures are related to rising sea level. According to Tancred Miller, a Coastal and Ocean Policy Manager at the Division of Coastal Management in North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR), the 39 inches number was only intended to be policy guidance for localities, never a planning mandate. NC-20 advocated instead for a planning mandate of 8 inches of sea level rise by 2100, based on a linear projection of data collected at a tide gauge in Wilmington, NC.
The Colbert clip went viral, and the NC legislature was embarrassed into toning down the introduced law. With the passage of House Bill 819 in August 2012, planning for sea level rise is now left up to local governments within the state—which is as it was before. However, as a result of Colbert, many more people are now talking about the challenges that lie ahead for coastal North Carolina.
“When we first started talking about sea level rise, our challenge was, how do we get the word out?” Miller said. “Stephen Colbert was not our first thought.”
Unexpected common ground
There is a bit of irony to the idea that NC-20’s vocal opposition to planning for sea level rise actually made more people aware of the Coastal Resources Commission report. But even more ironic is the fact that on both sides of the ‘controversy’—from the planners to the ‘anti-planners’—are people who actually have the same vision for the coast: sustainable economic development and protection of natural resources.
We met Tom Thompson, the Chairman of the Board of NC-20, at his wife’s gift shop in New Bern, North Carolina, then headed next door for a coffee. In preparation for the meeting, Thompson sent us a four-page report entitled “How to Save $7 Billion” which laid out NC-20’s basic position: planning for 39 inches of sea level rise would devastate the economy of the coast. NC-20’s evidence against the acceleration of sea level rise is cherry-picked to support their views, but Thompson’s intentions are heartfelt.
“My view of the world is as someone who has seen a lot of poverty and wants to make things better for people,” Thompson told us. “I just love this area and I want to protect it.”
For Thompson, protection means keeping flood insurance rates low enough so that people can stay in their homes, and encouraging business development in the region; he thinks both will be impossible with 39 inches of sea level rise. Thompson is also inherently skeptical of model projections; he doubts that flooding in New Bern would ever get past the curb outside the coffee shop.
“Predicting the future is a very hazardous profession,” he said.
Miller of NC DENR is the first to admit that the chasm between NC-20 and the Coastal Resources Commission actually comes in defining the problem: “The struggle we’re having is trying to get to a common understanding of the hazards that we face,” he said.
Another key disconnect is the fact that NC-20 believes that planning for a meter (39 inches) of sea level rise would be the kiss of death for the coast. Their report states that, “finding money to elevate [homes] would be impossible.” NC DENR and the Coastal Resources Commission, on the other hand, believe that planning for sea level rise is possible, and doing so sooner rather than later will help to mitigate more of the negative impacts.
“Sea level rise is not an emergency,” Miller said. “We have time to plan. We have time to talk about it. So let’s talk about it.”
Softening coastal infrastructure
North Carolina has in fact been doing more than ‘talking about’ impacts such as beach loss and storm flooding; they’ve been dealing with them for a long time. Every storm changes the coast—sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically—and communities have used various strategies to protect the coastline and nearby infrastructure. For instance, sand dredged from areas such as Beaufort Inlet, which has high ship traffic, is used to replenish eroding beaches nearby. We spent a day with Tancred Miller driving down Bogue Banks, from Fort Macon to Emerald Isle, looking at various coastal protection projects and strategies.
North Carolina’s coastal protection strategies have evolved over time, with more attention now given to ‘soft’ natural infrastructure instead of ‘hard’ beach armoring projects. Seawalls such as the one on Atlantic Beach that was built before there was a Coastal Resources Commission are now banned. North Carolina regulators are also reluctant to allow the installation of groins, which are rocks placed in a line or some other configuration to deflect water. In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing the Coastal Resources Commission to permit up to four groins as pilot projects, and assess how people downstream will be affected by the structures. (Communities are now preparing their applications for the structures.)
A couple of recent projects on Bogue Banks highlight the efficacy of natural infrastructure that—when located in the right place—can provide the same or better coastal protection benefit as groins or seawalls. We visited Pine Knoll Shores at the North Carolina Aquarium, a living shoreline project created in 2002 by the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
‘Living shoreline’ refers to the fact that the infrastructure is literally alive: the Pine Knoll Shores project features a line of loosely stacked rocks providing habitat for oysters, with spartina grass planted behind the rocks.
This kind of ‘soft’ infrastructure controls erosion while allowing for natural migration of species. Unlike vertical walls, the sloping living shoreline also absorbs more wave energy, therefore slowing erosion.
Another project, located at “The Point” at the far western end of Emerald Isle, in 2008 created a beach where there was none before. This was accomplished by plugging the channel in Bogue Inlet with a dike and then dredging a new channel to divert the water flow along an undeveloped island.
The diversion was essentially a big sand-moving project but had striking implications for the landscape of the Inlet. Before the project, oceanfront property owners were worried their houses might fall into the sea; now their only complaint is that it’s a far walk to the water. The project was funded through a federal-state-local government cost share.
Onward, towards an un-projected future
Since the Colbert clip, interest in the North Carolina sea level rise ‘controversy’ has waned, though the threats to the coast have not. In the meantime, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s Science Panel is preparing the scheduled update to their sea level rise report, due in 2015. The 2010 report included both a projected range of sea level rise and a 39-inch benchmark to guide coastal planning. This time around, the Commission will update the range of likely sea level rise but will not suggest any specific number as a benchmark.
The only guarantee is that the future will not be a derivative of the past.
“You can’t base the future entirely on the past,” Miller said. “You wouldn’t do it with the stock market, and you shouldn’t do it with sea level rise.”
Tell us what you think. Will North Carolina’s sea level rise struggles affect its ability to build a resilient future?