NC science panel agrees on sea-level forecast

Three years after their first forecast was loudly repudiated by coastal developers and Republican legislators, members of the state’s coastal science panel met quietly Friday to agree on final revisions to a new report predicting how high the seas will climb along North Carolina’s coast by 2045.

A 2010 report warning of a 39-inch sea-level rise by the end of this century was rejected by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, which had commissioned it. In 2012, the General Assembly ordered state agencies to ignore it.

Now, under guidelines dictated by the legislature and the commission’s chairman, Frank Gorham III, the panel of geologists and coastal engineers has looked just 30 years into the future for a draft report to be released March 31.

A preliminary version in December predicted a faster rise in sea level for the northern Outer Banks – where primordial geological forces are causing part of the North American land mass to sink – than on the southern coast. Those numbers varied from a range of 4 to 8.5 inches at Southport to a range of 6.5 to 12.1 inches at Duck.

Panel members agreed Friday to shave more than an inch off their Outer Banks forecast, incorporating recommendations from two out-of-state coastal engineers who critiqued their work. Exact numbers weren’t released Friday, but the March 31 report still will show a marked difference in sea-level rise at four different points along the coast.

“There is a very strong message that sea level is rising,” Margery Overton, a coastal engineering professor at N.C. State University, the science panel’s chairwoman, said after the meeting. “And that in and of itself is a very important message to get across to this state.”

Cary computer consultant Dave Burton, a persistent science panel critic who had hoped last year to join its ranks, attended Friday’s meeting to reiterate some of his long-standing objections. Panel members agree with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that greenhouse gases, warming waters and melting glaciers will accelerate sea-level rise in coming decades, but Burton does not.

Still, he offered mild praise for the new 30-year forecast.

“There’s no perfection in this world, but it’s much better than the 2010 report,” Burton said. “At least there’s a lot more reliance on actual data this time.”

What happens next

▪ The Science Panel report, with separate forecasts for sea-level rise by 2045 in four different areas on the coast, is released March 31 for public comment.

▪ After conducting a separate study on the economic and environmental pros and cons of developing sea-level regulations and policies, the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission releases North Carolina’s official sea-level forecast.

▪ State agencies will be allowed after July 1, 2016, to adopt zoning and other rules based on the forecast.