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N.C. coastal communities face growing threat from rising seas, report says

Temporary sandbags protect a beach house in Nags Head in this 2011 photo. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, predicts that up to 63 N.C. coastal communities could be “chronically inundated” by 2100.
Temporary sandbags protect a beach house in Nags Head in this 2011 photo. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, predicts that up to 63 N.C. coastal communities could be “chronically inundated” by 2100. JOHN D. SIMMONS - jsimmons@charl

Rising seas fueled by climate change threaten a growing number of North Carolina coastal communities, says a report by the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists.

By 2035, it predicts, 13 communities clustered mostly on the mainland side of Pamlico Sound will be “chronically inundated.” The study defines that as the point at which 10 percent of a community’s usable land floods at least 26 times a year.

By 2060, that number rises to 25 communities. By 2100, it says, people 49 communities may be forced to adapt to rising water or move out.

Those forecasts are based on the middle of three sea-level scenarios – low, intermediate and high – that the study used. It was reviewed by outside experts before it was published Wednesday in the journal Elementa.

Familiar vacation spots on North Carolina’s Outer Banks would suffer, the report said. Nags Head would have 11 percent of its land area, and Hatteras 14 percent, chronically inundated by 2045 under the highest sea level rise scenario. By 2060, it predicts, flooded areas would grow to 19 percent of the land at Nags Head and 28 percent at Hatteras.

Climate scientists view sea level rise as one of the most obvious signals of a warming planet. Sea water expands as it warms, and melting land-based ice sheets adds to rising water levels.

UCS supports the Paris climate change agreement, which it says would limit the loss of ice sheets that could accelerate sea level rise. President Donald Trump has said the U.S. will pull out of the global agreement.

Recent projections of global sea level rise range widely, from as little as two feet to more than six feet by 2100.

Sea-level rise scenarios have prompted vigorous opposition from some economic development interests on North Carolina’s coast who say long-range forecasts could be wrong.

When a state science panel reported in 2010 that seas on the coastline could rise by as much as 39 inches over the following century, legislators passed a law forbidding communities from using the report to make new rules.

A new report in 2015 looked only 30 years to the future and forecast a rise of 2 to 10 inches, depending on location.

Nationwide, more than 90 U.S. communities already face chronic flooding, UCS says. That number could jump to nearly 170 communities in less than two decades and to as many as 670 by 2100.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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