Monday, March 26, 2012

Damaging sea-level rise is on the way

From: Charlotte Observer By: Orrin H. Pilkey

New peer-reviewed research argues that both sea-level rise (SLR) and storm-surge elevations will be greater along much of the U.S. coastline than currently predicted. The impact for coastal communities could potentially be devastating.

This study, carried out by Climate Central, a nonprofit in Princeton, N.J., re-examined the impact of sea-level rise on storm surges by considering their elevation above the high-tide line. That’s a departure from current maps, which measure elevation from mid-tide levels.

The report predicts substantial increases “in the frequency of what are now considered extreme water levels within the next 50 years.”

If the world’s scientific community is to be believed, long-term global sea level rise is upon us and important changes are occurring on our coasts. A state-appointed SLR panel of N.C. scientists, like similar panels in other U.S. coastal states estimated a SLR on the order of 3 to 5 feet by the year 2100.

Northeastern North Carolina is in particular danger, especially around the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds. The slope of the mainland there is so gentle that a 1-foot rise in sea level will cause at least a 2-mile retreat of the shoreline.

The state’s lower coastal plain is home to more than a hundred small towns with populations ranging from a few hundred (Bath, 267) to more than a thousand (Manteo, 1,200) that are at low elevation already and at extreme risk from storm surges. A number of these communities are still recovering from storm-surge flooding caused by last year’s Hurricane Irene.

The people in these communities have real cause for concern and should be kept informed of the risks they and future generations face. For example, should one build or buy in one of the threatened towns? How much should communities commit to upgrading infrastructure? Are we going to abandon, move, raise or dike these communities?

Until recently the state, with federal funding, was making a study of the risk from a SLR of 39 inches, which would provide maps of future risk from both inundation and storm surges and provide a sound basis for long-term community planning.

Although the National Academy of Sciences, the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union have all supported the strong possibility of a major SLR by the year 2100, deniers of SLR have proven strong and effective.

In North Carolina, NC 20 is such a group. It was formed by the state’s 20 coastal counties and is, according to its website, “dedicated to economic development of the member counties.” It has concluded that the sea level will rise 3 to 14 inches by 2100, a number dramatically at odds with global scientific opinion. Their efforts have led the state to back off its plans to map the impact of a SLR of 39 inches (the science consensus level) and instead map a SLR of 16 inches.

This isn’t the first time that government has tried to hide the unpleasantries of SLR. In 2008, the Bush administration refused to publish an EPA document by SLR guru Jim Titus (he eventually published it privately).

In 2011, The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality deleted references to SLR in a report on Galveston Bay written by Rice University geologist John Anderson. The paper was a synopsis of another peer-reviewed paper already published by the Geological Society of America.

The lesson here is that the denial of the scientific view of global climate change and in particular SLR has penetrated to a local level. It is an intrusion made all the more onerous in light of new studies that predict higher than previously predicted SLR and storm-surge levels in coming decades.

Preservation of the status quo (including real estate prices) may prevail along our coasts, but in a democratic society such as ours, the state has no right to shield citizens from unpleasant environmental realities.

Orrin H. Pilkey is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology at Duke University.

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