Trying to communicate risk is never easy or popular, especially when it involves a slow-moving change that could take decades to manifest itself as a serious problem.
Mix in economics, politics and public policy decisions, and it's a recipe for governmental gridlock and inaction.
But Friday, some of the state's top coastal scientists and officials took a shot at how North Carolina should begin adapting its thinking – and development goals and policies – to a future coastline shaped by rising water levels.
“Getting information out there is a critical part of the process,” said Bob Emory, chairman of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission.
Members of the CRC's science panel estimate that the state's coast will see waters rise an average of 4.27 millimeters per year for the next 25 years, and potentially up to 1.4 meters – or 4.59 feet – by 2100. Rates would be slightly lower in the Wilmington area but higher in the northeast corner of the state where the land is subsiding.
But researchers made it clear on Friday that the projections were just that, recommending that the issue be reviewed every five years to take into account any new data that come to light.
Even so, the message at the N.C. Sea Level Rise Science Forum in Raleigh was that government and the public can't afford to move forward with long-range planning and policy decisions with their proverbial heads in the sand.
Emory said the CRC has already started tweaking some of its policies to take sea-level rise into account.
Changes include stricter beachfront setback requirements, which basically require bigger structures to be built farther back from the ocean, and redrawing inlet-hazard areas.
Emory added that this gradual approach might have to be ramped up, potentially by requiring coastal communities to incorporate sea-level rise into their local land-use plans.
Oak Island Councilwoman Dara Royal said it can be challenging for local officials to plan for a scenario of rising water levels – especially when it involves spending money – when there are so many other near-term issues to deal with.
“It can be a hard sell in today's climate,” she said. “But awareness about the challenges of sea-level rise is getting out there.”
And even if the public and governments drag their feet on reacting to a changing coast, other aren't waiting to adapt.
State Farm, for example, announced this week that it will no longer write or renew insurance policies for structures on barrier islands to reduce its exposure in areas prone to catastrophic events like hurricanes.
Storms events, from tropical storms to nor'easters, are expected to grow more damaging as higher water levels erode beaches faster and push storm-driven waves farther inland.
Gareth McGrath: 343-2384
On Twitter.com: @Gman2000