October 24, 2013. Governor McCrory has made appointments to the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC). Six new appointees join four existing CRC members whose terms end June 30, 2014 and one legislative appointee, leaving two legislative appointments still to be made to fill out the 13-member commission. The press release on the Governor’s appointments can be found here. A complete list of current members and contact information can be found here.
The State of Sea Level Rise Policy in North Carolina. The new Coastal Resources Commission will be walking into an ongoing debate over whether — and how — the state should plan for sea level rise. You can find an introduction to sea level rise here. In March 2010, the CRC’s Science Panel on Coastal Hazards released a report on sea level rise on the North Carolina coast. The Science Panel reviewed data from several studies of sea level in North Carolina and found that the rate of sea level rise on the North Carolina coast increased significantly in the 20th century. The Science Panel’s N.C. Sea Level Rise Assessment Report concluded that the data pointed to a likely 1 meter (39 inch) increase in sea level by 2100. The 39-inch projection represented the middle of three sea level rise scenarios considered by the Science Panel and would be consistent with simply continuing the recent relationship between temperature increase and relative sea level rise in North Carolina. The Science Panel issued a brief addendum in April 2012 responding to questions about the methods used in the 2010 report.
For comparison: A number of studies have found that the rate of sea level rise along the North Carolina coast remained at a fairly consistent 4 inches per century for hundreds of years before turning upward in the 20th century. Over the last fifteen years, sea level on the North Carolina coast has risen an average of 0.12 inches per year — or a rate of over 12 inches per century.
The Coastal Resources Commission began debating adoption of a sea level rise policy soon after receiving the Science Panel report. As developed in a series of public meetings, the draft policy focused on use of the Science Panel’s sea level rise projection as a planning benchmark. One planning consideration will be location and maintenance of public infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, water supplies, roads and bridges. Even an increase of twelve inches per century can be significant in coastal areas where low land elevation, wave action and increased shoreline erosion magnify the flood impact of rising water levels. (In the next section, you will find a link to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sea level riser viewer that allows you to see the land area flooded at different increases in sea level.) The draft policy did not propose any new regulation of private development.
Both the Science Panel report and CRC discussion of a draft sea level rise policy generated opposition from coastal developers, realtors and some local government officials. That opposition led to legislation, Session Law 2012-202, barring any state agency other than the Coastal Resources Commission from adopting a rate of sea level rise for regulatory purposes and preventing the CRC from taking any regulatory action before July 1, 2016. In the meantime, S.L. 2012-202 directed the Science Panel to provide an update of the 2010 report on sea level rise by March 1, 2015.
In response to concerns about the Science Panel’s projection, the CRC removed references to any specific rate of sea level rise from the draft policy. In August 2012, the CRC voted to send the policy out for public comment as a proposed rule. The policy then got caught up in a debate over the appropriateness of going through rulemaking on a policy that had no regulatory impact. At the end of the Perdue administration, the sea level rise policy remained in rulemaking limbo. One question for the newly appointed Coastal Resources Commission will be whether to revive discussion of planning for sea level rise on the North Carolina coast.
Overlapping the Science Panel’s work, in 2009 the N.C. Division of Emergency Management (DEM) began a Sea Level Rise Impact Study under a $5 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The DEM study was designed to look at the impact of different sea level rise scenarios on natural resources and the built environment. In 2012, the DEM study also met opposition. Political pressure reportedly caused DEM to back away from using the Science Panel’s projection (a 39-inch elevation in sea level by 2100) as the worst case scenario in the Impact Study. (See a May 2012 story by Charlotte Observer reporter Bruce Henderson.) I have not been able to confirm the range of sea level rise scenarios to be included in the final Sea Level Rise Impact Study. DEM had planned to complete the study by the summer of 2013, but has not yet released a report. You can find the DEM webpage for the study here.
New Information on Sea Level Rise. While North Carolina’s sea level rise planning efforts have stalled, other scientific and planning organizations continue to collect sea level rise data, project sea level rise impacts and develop plans to adapt to rising sea levels.
A NOAA website showing the potential effect of sea level rise now includes the North Carolina coast. Maps developed by NOAA’s Coastal Science Center show areas inundated as sea level rises. You can find the sea level rise viewer at http://www.csc.noaa.gov/slr/
The most recent report of the International Panel on Global Climate Change, issued in September, estimates global mean sea level will rise between10 and 32 inches by the end of the century. Those numbers represent an increase over mean sea level rise projections included in the 2007 IPGCC report. Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, just published a helpful summary of the new IPGCC report on sea level rise here. Sea level does not rise at the same rate on all coastal shorelines, however, and the N.C. Science Panel report explains why relative sea level rise on the North Carolina coast will likely be higher than the global mean sea level.
Coastal Military Bases and Planning for Sea Level Rise. North Carolina has a number of military installations in the coastal area. In 2010, the Department of Defense (DOD) Quadrennial Defense Review for the first time identified global climate change as a national security concern because of the potential impact on U.S. military installations around the world. DOD had begun to focus on the impact of sea level rise on coastal military bases even earlier out of concern that changes associated with sea level rise (more rapid coastal erosion, rising water tables and salt water intrusion in aquifers) have the potential to impact military infrastructure and training facilities. A 2008 National Intelligence Council assessment concluded that 30 U.S. military installations were at risk of damage from rising sea level.
Some DOD sea level rise assessments have looked specifically at N.C. military installations. A 2009 sea level rise risk assessment for DOD modeled shoreline changes at coastal installations in N.C. in response to different rates of sea level rise. The consultant’s report used the Air Force Dare County Bombing Range as an example of the results — between 58% and 100% of the land area of the bombing range could be lost to shoreline changes in response to projected rates of sea level rise. DOD’s environmental research arm, the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), has several projects underway to evaluate the impact of climate change and sea level rise on U.S. military installations. One SERDP project involves N.C’s Camp Lejuene Marine Corps Base in Onslow County. You can find a description of the SERDP projects here.
Going in Different Directions? Setting aside debate about the cause, the U.S. Department of Defense has chosen to assess the vulnerability of coastal military installations to sea level rise and actively plan for those impacts. The practicality of managing sea level rise at existing military installations may become a factor in future Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decisions. The military’s response to sea level rise could have significant implications for North Carolina since seven of the state’s eight military installations are located at the coast. (Fort Bragg is the one exception.) But as DOD moves to understand and plan for sea level rise, N.C.’s political leadership has turned away from sea level rise planning. Given the large economic footprint of the state’s military installations (see a 2013 report for the N.C. Department of Commerce), state leaders have increased efforts to support the military presence in the state. Right now, those efforts don’t include cooperative planning for sea level rise, but that may become important.