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As seas rise, so must level of coastal area planning

N.C. officials believe significant problems will occur by 2042.

Whether you believe global warming is a natural phenomenon or the result of human activity, this much is clear: On North Carolina's coastline, relative sea levels are rising and more land submerges each year.

As the Observer's Bruce Henderson reported Sunday, the combination of warming waters, the coast's flat topography, relentless wave action, coastal storms and sinking lands have combined to speed up relative sea level rise. A science panel forecasts a rise of perhaps 1 meter, or about 39 inches, over the 21st century. Few states stand to lose as much as North Carolina, with about 2,000 square miles of land 1 meter or less above sea level.

Hand-wringing and wailing won't do much. Sand replenishment for beaches and dikes such as one being built to surround the town of Swan Quarter will help, if there's enough money. No one believes there will be enough.

Already, erosion and storms have underwashed rows of beach houses at several points along the coast. And while no one wants to retreat, that's in fact what some areas have been doing quietly for decades. State officials believe an important tipping point will occur perhaps a little more than three decades from now, by 2042, when many people and their workplaces, homes and community facilities will have to move inland.

The wisest course will be to make forward-looking decisions now about building new infrastructure and moving existing infrastructure landward. An ambitious plan to remap coastal floodplains with the help of a $5 million federal grant will be invaluable in determining areas of greatest risk. Already DOT is planning to raise the level of U.S. 64 along 28 miles of the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula. Officials need to apply such long-range planning to everything from boat ramps and public docks to schools, courthouses and other facilities on the vulnerable Outer Banks.

No one's warning that the Banks will disappear entirely under seawater. But if relative sea level rise speeds up to a rate of 6 feet a century because of the melting of the ice caps, our coastline will look very different - with more islands, more marshes and fewer of the broad beaches and expensive coastal homes we became used to in the last half of the 20th century. As sea levels rise, so must our ability to plan for how to cope with this rising tide.

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