Sea level report shows increasing pace of change along coast

Posted January 1, 2015 9:11 p.m. EST
Updated January 1, 2015 9:13 p.m. EST

— A report released on Dec. 31 shows the climate is changing along the North Carolina coast, and the sea level is rising faster in some areas than in others.

The North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission requested the study so that local communities and state leaders could better understand the science of sea level to inform development plans along the the coast.

State lawmakers rejected a previous study that predicted that the ocean would rise 39 inches on the North Carolina coast over the next 100 years.

Warren Judge, a Dare County commissioner, said that timeline was too long to be useful.

The latest forecast looks at a shorter period, just 30 years.

"30 years, that's something that you can envision and something you can plan for," Judge said. "100 years just becomes kind of a joke."

If sea levels continue to rise at their current rate, scientists predict the ocean could be nearly 5 1/2 inches higher on the northern Outer Banks in 30 years, and 2 1/2 inches around Wilmington.

But the report endorses the theory that climate change will hasten the rates of rising sea levels. It predicts a boost of just over a foot at Duck, on the northern coast, and four inches at Southport, near Wilmington, by 2045.

Judge says rising sea levels are, in his words, "probably real."

"I say it like that because don't want to join the hysteria of 'It's happening, it's happening!' but at the same time, I don't want to turn my back on it," Judge said.

Dr. Stan Riggs, a geologist at East Carolina University who contributed to the report, said developing the coast according to the status quo won't work anymore. His studies show the coast is already suffering the impact of rising seas, especially during storms.

"We have a history of change,” Riggs said. "We better realize those piles of sand are moving.”

Judge said Dare County is prepared to take rising seas seriously. 

“We have good building codes and build good, strong buildings," he said. "We need to be progressive about building.”

Any change in development strategy will require buy-in at the local and state level.

"The worst thing that can happen to us is the state agencies coming down with a lot of mandates,” Judge said. “You need to let the local people feed uphill to the state.”

The report will be peer reviewed and subject to public comment over the next year and a half before anything can happen at the state level.