July 28, 2014

Hatteras Island Real Estate:
The rising sea level debate


The subject of rising sea level has always been one of my favorite areas of interest. Over the years, I have written several articles on this elusive topic. Rising sea level as it relates to the state of North Carolina, and the Outer Banks in particular, received renewed attention when it was the subject of an extensive front and back page article in the Washington Post in late June. The article was much too long to reproduce here, but it can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/qab6ryy.

While the Washington Post article covered many of the main points surrounding the controversy associated with rising sea level in North Carolina, there was a distinct undertone that the state and its coastal counties are trying to legislate the science associated with the issue.

The central theme of the Washington Post article is a debate that is going on between some members of the scientific community and local governmental officials concerning the amount of sea level rise that can be anticipated between now and the end of the century. Highly summarized, the 2010 North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) Science Panel Report projected that sea level could be expected to rise 39 inches by the year 2100. This projection was one of the central elements of the dispute.

The sparks really started to fly when the state planned to create a website that would show by street address which properties would supposedly be inundated by the 39-inch forecast.

In addition, the report encouraged the CRC to consider a draft policy that would require North Carolina’s 20 coastal counties to use the 39 inch estimate as a planning benchmark for private development and public infrastructure projects. If adopted, one interpretation of such a policy said that it would have directed the affected counties to start raising roads, elevating bridges, and rezoning land. It was suggested that properties affected by the 39-inch sea level rise estimate might be rezoned as uninhabitable. The Coastal Resources Commission chairman disputed this evaluation, indicating that such definitive recommendations had not been intended or agreed upon.

Another proposal by the panel concerning their recommendations for adaptation to their sea level prediction was to “either live with it or retreat.” There was no mention in the report of having the state look at other shoreline management options.

The counterpoints to the science panel’s report were outlined by Willo Kelly, government affairs liaison for the Outer Banks Association of Realtors and the Outer Banks Home Builders Association. She is also president of NC-20 -- a partnership of the people, local governments, and businesses of the 20 coastal counties in North Carolina dedicated to economic development of the member counties. Some of Kelly’s main arguments were these.

  • The 39-inch sea level rise prediction originated from Stefan Rahmstorf, a scientist with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and the “leading” sea level researcher. His projection was derived from a computer model that takes into account future man-made global warming – not statistical data. His work was purportedly funded by the largest reinsurance company in the world, a business that advocates man-made global warming.

  • Rahmstorf predicts sea level rise will continue as it has historically until about 2050 when he expects it to accelerate at an alarming rate. This is referred to as the “hockey stick” projection.

  • Rahmstorf has publicly stated that his “best estimate of sea level rise by 2100 based on his prediction of future man-made global warming is one meter, give or take a half meter.” This translates into a range of 18 to 55 inches. (One meter equals 39 inches.)

  • Using historical, statistical sea level data, NC-20 favors a forecast of 8 inches of sea level rise.

  • The 2010 CRC Science Panel Report was not compiled after an independent study of sea level rise by the panel. It was compiled by members of the panel conducting a “literary review” of the subject. The report did not include any opposing positions from researchers and scientists, and it appeared to represent cherry-picked information.

  • The report contained inherent imbalances. It did not reference any scientific studies that refuted a possible 39-inch rise in sea level by 2100.

  • Many people do not understand the concept of relative sea level rise – areas where the land is actually sinking and not entirely due to rising waters. (The Duck Pier where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a sea-level monitoring facility is located in one of these areas.)

  • If the CRC had adopted the Science Panel’s recommendation that “a 39-inch rise in sea level shall be used as a planning benchmark” for coastal counties, North Carolina would have been the first state to take this aggressive position. Coastal county officials became alarmed that the process used to arrive at this recommendation was not transparent, not based on sound scientific data, and could potentially harm property owners’ rights to develop, redevelop, or transfer ownership of their properties.

  • After a lengthy debate on the Science Panel Report/draft policy, the Coastal Resources Commission decided to postpone adopting an “official” sea level rise projection. The CRC chairwoman opened a meeting with the statement, “There is no accepted scientific method for the prediction of long-term sea level rise.”

In 2012, the North Carolina General Assembly agreed that the state was moving too fast. Lawmakers set aside the 39-inch forecast and ordered the CRC to draft new projections that took into account dissenting views on sea level rise and its causes.

Moving forward to 2014, the new Coastal Resources Committee chairman has directed the science panel to look at a reasonable, practical 30-year sea level rise projection. This approach has supposedly garnered considerable support. Using a 30-year time horizon, sea level could be anticipated to rise approximately 8 inches according to one estimate.

Let’s move from the state level to local viewpoints on rising sea level. Perhaps, Dare County Manager, Bobby Outten, summarized it best when he said, “Even if we knew for certain there was going to be 39-inch rise in sea level by 2100, what should we be doing differently that we aren’t doing now?” He has also commented, “We lose beach because the water is rising equal to the thickness of two nickels every year. Some call it sea level rise, but from our perspective its erosion, and we’ve been living with it forever. It doesn’t seem reasonable to invest today’s tax dollars and punish the public for a problem that is 100 years away and may not exist. We aren’t arguing with science. We’re just trying to be reasonable.”

Willo Kelly summarized some of the actions that are currently being taken to recognize and to mitigate the effects of flooding, climate change, hurricanes, and erosion.

  • Dare County is one of 20 coastal counties that are required to comply with the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) which means that property owners have to comply with more stringent and restrictive building standards compared to other locations within the state.

  • There are presently many regulations and policies in place to address flood hazard mitigation on the local, state, and federal level, such as building setback rules, building code regulations, flood maps, erosion maps, stormwater runoff rules, etc.

  • Dare County and all of its towns participate in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Community Rating System which encourages local governments to adopt ordinances that exceed state/federal requirements to further moderate flood hazards.

  • New Flood Insurance Rate Maps will soon be released which show base flood elevations going down in most areas of Dare County.

  • County and local government Public Works departments as well as the North Carolina Department of Transportation maintain drainage systems to prevent or reduce flooding risks.

  • In response to eroding shorelines, Nags Head was the first town in Dare County to undertake a beach nourishment project. A beach nourishment project is now underway at the S-curves north of Rodanthe, and feasibility studies are being prepared for additional beach nourishment projects in Buxton and other hot spots on Hatteras Island. Other cities and towns along the East Coast have been managing their shorelines for years.

At the risk of venturing beyond my intelligence, here are a few of my personal observations.

I have always seen rising sea level as the “silent killer” like high blood pressure. You don’t immediately see it or feel it, but eventually it takes its toll.

Sea level rise is a complex topic. It has many causes. It is very difficult to measure, and it occurs at different rates in different places along the coast. For example, the historical rate of rise at the Duck tide gauge was reported to be about 15 inches over 90 years. On the other hand, in Wilmington sea level has risen 7.2 inches.

Many scientists believe that the movement of sand along the shore in currents generated by wind and wave action has had the greatest impact on Hatteras Island’s shoreline over the last 30 to 50 years. Few of us would argue that the hurricanes and nor’easters that we experience often produce dramatic changes in our beaches.

Sea level rise, on the other hand, is a long-term process contributing to erosion. It is so long term, in fact, that we don’t directly observe its impact, or we tend to attribute its manifestations to other causes. The issue is further masked because of the difficulty researchers have in gathering firm statistics on rising sea level. Water levels change so slowly that it is not easy to accurately measure increases or decreases on an annual basis.

As I understand the dynamics of the process, there are basically two ways for sea level to rise – you can increase the temperature of the water, which will cause a given volume of water to expand, or you can increase the total amount of water in a given area.

A third but more localized source of sea level rise occurs when there is a decrease in the elevation of the land. This is called subsidence. As I recall, Dr. Stanley Riggs, a coastal geologist from East Carolina University, has commented that subsidence is a negligible factor on Hatteras Island, but it could have a significant impact in other areas.

The entire topic of global warming and the associated sea level rise seems to be tainted on an ongoing basis by allegations of data manipulation on the part of researchers. The most recent example was a report that NOAA manipulated surface temperature data by replacing actual surface temperature data with data from computer models. The actual data supposedly showed that the United States has been cooling since the 1930s rather than warming.

Wow, talk about an interesting drama unfolding for our remote area of the coast! This is shaping up to be a classic debate between those who worship at the altar of science vs. those with practical day to day business and personal interests and concerns. And, the entire discourse can be expected to be colored by political influence and various biases in media reporting.

On a barrier island like ours, change is the only constant. Those of us who live here now and those who lived here before the first Europeans arrived have had to deal with the natural forces that continuously reshape the island. Adaptability is the characteristic that has assured survival up to this point, and I believe that it will be adaptability and creativity that will assure that the beauty and pleasures of Hatteras Island will be here for the enjoyment of many generations to come.

What is your opinion, and how do you think this fascinating issue will ultimately play out?

Selected references for this article

Washington Post - http://tinyurl.com/qab6ryy

News Observer.com - http://tinyurl.com/kldwjje

CATO Institute - http://tinyurl.com/loycuku

NewsObserver.com - http://tinyurl.com/mtsd9h6

National Geographic News - http://tinyurl.com/luz7uww

Riggs, Ames, Culver & Mallinson (2011), "The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast," Chapel Hill, NC, The University of North Carolina Press

(Tom Hranicka is an associate broker with Outer Beaches Realty. Questions, comments, or suggestions for future articles may be sent to Tom Hranicka at P.O. Box 237, Avon, NC  27915, or e-mail to [email protected] )
Copyright 2014 Tom & Louise Hranicka.  All rights reserved.

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