July 28, 2014
Hatteras Island Real Estate:
The rising sea level debate
By TOM HRANICKA
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
historical, statistical sea level data, NC-20 favors a forecast of 8
inches of sea level rise.
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.
report contained inherent imbalances. It did not reference any
scientific studies that refuted a possible 39-inch rise in sea level
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Flood Insurance Rate Maps will soon be released which show base
flood elevations going down in most areas of Dare 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.
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.
the risk of venturing beyond my intelligence, here are a few of my
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
is your opinion, and how do you think this fascinating issue will
ultimately play out?
references for this article
Post - http://tinyurl.com/qab6ryy
Observer.com - http://tinyurl.com/kldwjje
Institute - http://tinyurl.com/loycuku
Geographic News - http://tinyurl.com/luz7uww
Ames, Culver & Mallinson (2011), "The Battle for North
Carolina’s Coast," Chapel Hill, NC, The University of North
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
Copyright © 2014 Tom & Louise Hranicka. All rights