Earth & Energy

On the coast, a warm and wet future unfolds

The sea laps at beach houses in Nags Head in this 2010 photo.
The sea laps at beach houses in Nags Head in this 2010 photo. JOHN D. SIMMONS - jsimmons@charl

As politicians dither over climate change, scientists are watching it unfold before their eyes.

I joined other journalists and broadcast meteorologists in Beaufort last weekend for a two-day climate workshop coordinated by the nonprofit North Carolina Coastal Federation.

Climate change, and the passion around it, is a hard subject to cover for journalists weaned on even-handed reporting. Longtime WRAL meteorologist Greg Fishel, a former skeptic who spoke in Beaufort, publicly wrestled with his stand – and contrarian commenters – in a Facebook post this week.

But very few climate scientists now question that the planet is warming, driven largely by economies built around burning oil, gas and coal since the beginnings of the Industrial Age.

Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are at the highest levels in potentially millions of years, Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University climate scientist, told us. Mann is known for the “hockey stick” graph of rising temperatures that match CO2 increases.

If fossil fuel burning stopped now, Mann said, rising temperatures may peak at another 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2100. If current trends continue, he said, temperatures might go up 4 to 5 degrees Celsius.

At that point, he said, “we’re fundamentally talking about a different planet.”

Temperatures in the Carolinas have lagged most of the U.S., rising one-half to 1 degree Fahrenheit since the early 1990s compared to the first half of the 20th century.

UNC marine scientist Pete Peterson told us that water temperatures near Beaufort have risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit in recent decades. Tropical fish species are moving into coastal reefs.

The government’s National Climate Assessment reports other observed changes, including heavier downpours of rain in the Southeast. It also predicts global sea level rise of one to four feet by 2100.

Sea level rise is a big deal for North Carolina’s low-lying northeastern corner, one of the most vulnerable coastlines in the nation. About 2,000 square miles of the coastal plain rise one meter or less above sea level.

Scientists say rising water, combined with storm surges from more frequent and intense North Atlantic hurricanes, will make our coast a challenging place to live.

Hurricane Joaquin, which pummeled the Carolinas this month, developed at a time of record high sea surface temperatures for this time of year, Mann said. Warm seas pump moisture into the atmosphere, fueling tropical storms.

“You couldn’t ask, unfortunately, for a better example of how climate change is impacting us here, now,” he said.

Near Beaufort, the Coastal Federation showed off its “living shorelines” that use natural materials, from oyster shells to marsh plants, to protect inland waterways from erosion. They’re cheaper and more resilient than hard bulkheads, the federation says.

Beach communities, meanwhile, are scrambling for money and sand to build up their beaches. The strategy can defend against erosion but is expensive and has to be renewed every few years.

“Economic decisions, including beach renourishment, will determine how long people hang on,” said Todd Miller, the federation’s executive director.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender