North Carolina: Sea Level Rise Science is Annoying

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Today is World Oceans Day: a day in which to revel in the wonders of the deep blue sea and its endless secrets and treasures.

That's all well and good, but in the halls of North Carolina's State Legislative Building, this special day is just a reminder to outlaw all that needless worry about sea level rise.

A handful of North Carolina general assembly members, and their supportive lobbyists, are not at all interested in planning for accelerated sea level rise.  Just the opposite, a draft piece of legislation would allow coastal Carolinians to keep planning for the rising seas - as long as they keep their predictions limited to 15 inches over the next 100 years.

North Carolina, with its vast, low-lying coastal expanses, is particularly susceptible to sea level rise, and the state had in fact already been planning ahead for the impacts on bridges, sewer lines, power plants, wetlands, homes, hotels and myriad other potentially vulnerable points.  But the state's Coastal Resources Commission recommended back in 2010 that North Carolina prepare for a sea-level rise of up to 55 inches by 2100 (with 39-inches seen as "likely").

That's nearly four times what the draft legislation allows.

Why the stark difference? That 55 inch rise translates to at least 1.5 million now-dry acres of North Carolina land that would be susceptible to the waves and tides.  That's a lot of acres of valuable shorefront land that would be restricted to development in one way or another.

Enter NC-20, a lobbying group representing developers within North Carolina's 20 coastal counties.  NC-20 takes issue with the 39-inch sea level rise projection because, as they say, sea level rise "projections should be based on science, not computer models based on human speculation." (As if science doesn't include the use of computer models.)  After looking back at the past century of data, NC-20 and sympathetic legislators saw that sea levels had risen about 8 inches along the North Carolina coast, so naturally that rate will continue, right?

Grist's Jess Zimmerman has a perfect, North Carolina-specific analogy illustrating why this is absurd:

...look at it this way: In 1790, the year North Carolina is stuck in, the population was about 400,000. In 1900, it was 1.9 million. That's an increase of 1.5 million in 110 years -- so if there were an analogous rule for population, the state would prepare for 3.4 million residents in 2010. Which might cause some strife among the 9.7 million people who live there now, but you know, whatever -- the law is the law, so screw you, math.

Indeed, planning for change can be hard, especially if that change costs money and rolls out over a long period of time. So for those North Carolina coastal communities that have the nerve to plan for that "accelerating" sea level rise that climatologists and coastal geologists keep prattering on about - slow down there, tarheel! You might soon be breaking the law.