Nags Head, N.C., seen in June 2014, is part of the state's Outer Banks region, which has become a flashpoint in the debate over global warming. In 2010, the science panel of the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission concluded that sea levels along the coast could rise anywhere from 15 to 55 inches over the coming century. Photo: Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post

By Lori Montgomery
24 June 2014

NAGS HEAD, N.C. – The dangers of climate change were revealed to Willo Kelly in a government conference room in the summer of 2011. By the end of the century, state officials said, the ocean would be 39 inches higher and her home on the Outer Banks would be swamped.

The state had detailed maps to illustrate this claim and was developing a Web site where people could check by street address to see if their property was doomed. There was no talk of salvation, no plan to hold back the tide. The 39-inch forecast was “a death sentence,” Kelly said, “for ever trying to sell your house.”

So Kelly, a lobbyist for Realtors and home builders on the Outer Banks, resolved to prove the forecast wrong. And thus began one of the nation’s most notorious battles over climate change.

Coastal residents joined forces with climate skeptics to attack the science of global warming and persuade North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature to deep-six the 39-inch projection, which had been advanced under the outgoing Democratic governor. Now, the state is working on a new forecast that will look only 30 years out and therefore show the seas rising by no more than eight inches.

Environmentalists are appalled, and North Carolina has been lampooned as a hotbed of greedy developers trying to “outlaw” the rising tide. Some climate-change experts are sympathetic, however, calling the rebellion an understandable reaction to sea-level forecasts that are rapidly becoming both widely available and alarmingly precise.

“The main problem they have is fear,” said Michael Orbach, a marine policy professor at Duke University who has met with coastal leaders. “They realize this is going to have a huge impact on the coastal economy and coastal development interests. And, at this point, we don’t actually know what we’re going to do about it.”

Cities such as Norfolk and Miami have embraced the data, identifying inundation zones as a first step toward planning — and seeking federal funds for — sea walls, floodgates and other forms of protection. On lonelier stretches of the U.S. shoreline, however, government aid seems less likely than interference and abandonment, and the forecasts are sparking deep anxiety about the future.

In the Carolinas and Southampton, N.Y., isolated enclaves of ultra-rich shore-front owners have moved preemptively to build private bulkheads to protect their homes from the rising sea. But such fortifications are not an option on the Outer Banks, a string of narrow barrier islands dotted with busy beach towns, isolated fishing villages and stretches of wild seashore. In spots, the islands are barely 100 yards wide.

“We don’t have any tools in our toolbox other than retreat,” Kelly said on a recent morning in a sunny Manteo cafe that would be underwater if the sea were 39 inches higher. “In the backs of their minds, what everyone is thinking is that they just want people off the Outer Banks.”

Long before that would happen, though, Kelly worries that codifying the 39-inch forecast would crush the local economy, which relies entirely on tourism and the construction, sale and rental of family beach houses. In Dare County alone, the islands’ largest jurisdiction, the state has identified more than 8,500 structures, with an assessed value of nearly $1.4 billion, that would be inundated if the tides were 39 inches higher.

Even with an eight-inch forecast, 414 Dare County properties worth $70 million would be marked for inundation. If the state ever activates the Web site that lets potential investors search by address, Kelly said, “all of a sudden, those properties would be worthless.”

Nationwide, $700 billion of coastal property could be below mean sea level by the end of the century — and an additional $730 billion could be at risk at high tide — without new policies to forestall climate change, according to a new report by the Risky Business Project, a high-powered group of financial and political figures who are set to meet Wednesday with senior Obama administration officials. [more]

On N.C.'s Outer Banks, scary climate-change predictions prompt a change of forecast


  1. Anonymous said...

    Didn't North Carolina's government declare climate change taboo and not to be discussed? Didn't they refuse to discuss this?  

  2. Anonymous said...

    Yes, they did. Here is a link to one article that talks about it. If this site doesn't allow links and this one gets deleted you can just Google it.

    IMHO, NC used to be one of the most progressive of the Southern states in America. Unfortunately he current hard right state government is trying to change this as fast as possible and turn us into a Mississippi, which is one of the most backward states in the Union.

    Some people are starting to wake up to this fact, but I don't know if there are enough of them to turn things around yet.

    Sincerely signed,
    A sad and somewhat demoralized NC Resident.  


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