News: CJ Exclusives

Criticisms Convince State To Back Off Projections of Dramatic Sea Level Rise

State officials still pushing coastal counties to prepare for a one-meter rise

State officials are pressuring local governments to plan for a one-meter sea-level rise by 2100, even though many independent scientists have argued the rise is highly unlikely if not impossible.

Even though a state advisory panel no longer recommends regulations based on the one-meter projection, local government officials worry that state regulators will try to implement those rules.

Such a policy, they say, would have a devastating impact on coastal economies, property values, and citizens’ ability to secure financing and property insurance. North Carolina also would become the first state to enact policies consistent with a projected sea-level rise of that magnitude.

In a 2010 report (PDF), the Coastal Resource Commission’s Science Panel said the sea level is likely to rise one meter by 2100. Now the commission is drafting policy “encouraging” coastal communities to consider accelerated rates of sea-level rise in local land-use and development planning.

A group of independent scientists have challenged the panel’s report, pushing the CRC to revise its draft sea-level rise policy so that the regulations in it read more like suggestions and the one-meter benchmark no longer appears.

There’s nothing scientific about the way the science panel came up with its one-meter projection, said John Droz, a physicist and environmental activist. Droz, with the help of more than 30 other scientists, wrote a critique (PDF) of the panel’s “NC Sea-Level Rise Assessment Report.”

Droz’s first complaint is that the panel based its one-meter projection on a review of scientific studies, but the review excluded studies concluding that sea-level rise is not happening. Also, the study cited most by the panel is no longer supported by its own author.

“They never mentioned this,” he said. “These people are either totally incompetent or they’re just totally dishonest.”

Droz also criticizes the broadness of the range of possible scenarios the panel came up with.

The report states that the panel has not attempted “to predict a specific future rate or amount of rise because that level of accuracy is not considered to be attainable at this time.” Instead, the panel predicts a “likely range of rise” between 15 and 55 inches and settles on 39 inches (one meter) as the “amount of rise that should be adopted for policy development and planning purposes.”

“It appears the authors want to have it both ways,” Droz said. “They rightfully acknowledge an accurate future prediction is unattainable, yet they make a future prediction that they expect North Carolina to use for development and planning purposes.”

Droz also takes issue with the tide gauge measurements the panel relied on. Of the eight measuring stations in North Carolina, the panel said it “feels most confident in the data retrieved from the Duck gauge,” which shows the highest measurements of all eight stations and which has been collecting data for the fewest number of years.

The Duck station’s 24 years of data show an average rate of sea-level rise at 16 inches per century. By contrast, a measuring station in Wilmington with 67 years of data shows an average rate of 8 inches per century.

Additionally, Droz calls the tide gauge measurements too crude to provide useful data. The report says that “a tide gauge can be as simple as a long ruler nailed to a post on a dock.”

It also admits “a drawback to tide gauges in North Carolina, in addition to their small number, is that most of them don’t extend back in time more than 50 years, making it difficult to resolve changes in the rate of rise over the decades.”

The report adds, “More accurate” satellite measurements have been available only since 2001. Droz argues that 10 years of data are “clearly insufficient in determining things like hundred-year trends.”

Droz said some scientists believe the sea is not rising at all. He points to a recent newspaper profile of Dr. Nils-Axel Morner, former head of the Paleogeophysics and Geodynamics Department at Stockholm University and former head of the INQUA International Commission on Sea Level Change.

“Despite fluctuations down as well as up, the sea is not rising,” Morner said. “It hasn’t risen in 50 years. If there is any rise this century it will not be more than 10 centimeters (4 inches), with an uncertainty of plus or minus 10 centimeters.”

Droz asked Morner what he thought of the science panel’s prediction.

“Sorry, simply physically impossible,” Morner wrote. “It is, for sure, not rising by one meter by year 2100. Our best estimate for 2100 is 5 centimeters with a 15 centimeter margin of error, and that is nothing to worry about.”

Damage control

After circulating his critique, Droz was invited to make a presentation to state lawmakers, who put pressure on the CRC to change the language in their sea level rise policy draft.

After reviewing his critique, Droz said one member of the science panel sent him a confidential message. “He apologized for signing off on it and said he was totally remiss in his obligation to do the right thing.”

Because of Droz’s work, the North Carolina Office of Emergency Management now is studying the impact of a range of potential levels in sea rise from zero to 15 inches by 2100, instead of 15 to 55 inches.

“We brought it down after talking with Droz and other individuals,” said John Dorman, director of the flood mapping program for the Office of Emergency Management. “We believe, as Mr. Droz says — and I’ll give him credit for that — that it needs to be based on science.

“None of us know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “The more we thought about that, the more we decided that while there’s value in showing what potentially could happen, when you get way outside the bounds of reason, it becomes more of a detriment than a benefit.”

Dorman said his department met with Droz and Tom Thompson of NC-20, a coalition of 20 coastal counties formed to protect their economic development interests from what they consider “unreasonable” environmental regulations.

“Honestly, they convinced us to run only the scientifically based, extrapolated rates [as opposed to the predicted accelerated rates] with some deviation to the lower side and upper side,” Dornan said.

“I agree with Tom Thompson and John Droz, you don’t want to put something out there that could impact North Carolina in a negative way, especially if it’s not based on science,” he said.

Full steam ahead

Chairman of the Coastal Resource Commission Bob Emory said he still is comfortable with the one-meter prediction and that his agency plans to continue “encouraging” local governments to use the benchmark in their land-use plans.

After local government officials expressed “some real heartburn” over the 39-inch benchmark, Emory says it was deleted from the CRC’s official policy. However, it still will be used for “education purposes.”

“It’s too soon to take a regulatory approach,” Emory said. “I don’t think people are ready for that. But it’s something they should start incorporating into their thinking.”

Carteret County Commissioner Doug Harris said coastal counties are being pressured to plan for a significant rise.

“Unfortunately, state bureaucrats are convinced that the presently not increasing rate of sea level rise will increase rapidly in the future, and, ignoring the second-guessing within the science panel, both the Division of Coastal Management and Sea Grant are aggressively educating and manipulating local government officials to impose 39-inch-sea-level-rise land planning immediately,” Harris said.

“Certainly, if sea level is rising more rapidly, or will begin to rise more rapidly, by any cause, we need to know it,” Harris said. But depending upon the final wording of the CRC’s sea-level rise policy, he fears it will in effect “take homes and businesses, raise insurance rates, diminish bank financing, and reduce property values by billions.”

Harris noted that North Carolina is the first state along the East Coast to propose a future sea-level rise rate and would be the first to develop a policy based on this future rate.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.