New Bern, NC – House Bill 819 was proposed in North Carolina's House of Representatives with the intention to limit the use of data for sea level change. In April of last year, it didn't get past the Senate floor, but earlier this month a representative of the Senate reintroduced the bill with modified language and it is now likely to be made into law pending a review by the House the Representatives and Governor Beverly Perdue. The bill designates that ordinances created for planning departments be based on sea level data limited to what has occurred in the past. It also proposes that the Coastal Resources Commission be the sole authority in future uses of sea level data throughout twenty coastal North Carolina counties.
Although the CRC has been chosen to collect data for the state, Chairman of the Coastal Resources Commission, Bob Emory, says the bill was at least in part a response to disagreements with their 2010 sea level study.
"We were engaged in a discussion or had been engaged in a discussion for the last two years beginning to get our arms around sea level rise and what it might mean for the coastal area of North Carolina. I believe the work we were doing in that regard gave some people some concern and that's where this bill came from."
Another reason the bill was introduced is the effect of changes in 2009 to ocean set back requirements. Ocean setbacks tell commercial and residential developers land they can build on in relation to erosion rates. Before 2009 inlet areas and ocean front areas had the same set back requirements but the CRC made a rule saying the two types of coast should have separate setback requirements. So they made the change. What the bill asks for is that the CRC study these effects again and see if the dividing line between inlets and ocean fronts can be eliminated. Professor of Biology at Duke University, Rob Jackson, studies climate change, and spoke at the Senate Environment Committee. He says that these erosion rates correspond to sea level change.
"As seal level goes up you have greater erosion along the coast particularly when you have buildings and roads fixed in place. It's the erosion on a day-to-day basis but it's especially the erosion that occurs with storm surges, and hurricanes, and things like that. When sea level is higher to begin with then the pressure or force of that water on the road, on the buildings, on the seawalls goes up, so when sea level goes up, then erosion is likely to increase too especially where we have roads, and buildings fixed in place."
In 2010 the CRC completed a study that predicted local and state agencies should plan for a number of sea level change options. They came up with three scenarios, the best case being about ten inches, the worst case up to fifty five inches. They settled on middle ground proposing that agencies take into account the possibility that sea level could rise thirty nine inches by the year 2100. The prediction was aimed at local planning departments and other coastal developers in the twenty coastal counties. Professor Jackson points out that although they did make recommendations nobody went so far as to use the 39 inch mark to create law.
"they didn't mandate planning on a particular amount of sea level rise, they said here is the range that is possible, and we think the most likely range is about three feet or so, that acceleration for the coming century, compared to the last century is entirely understandable and consistent with the way we think the earth works. Temperatures are heating up exponentially, and sea level rise that comes about because of those increasing temperatures will increase exponentially too, there's a very good agreement on that, and we understand the science behind it."
Though the predictions may be based off history and scientific modeling, most scientists, including Professor Jackson also agree about the very gradual process of sea level rise.
"I think what's shaky for fifty to hundred years is pretending that we or anyone knows precisely what will happen."
But when it comes to infrastructure such as roads and sewer lines, fifty to eighty years in the future isn't so far away. If roads and bridges, and sewer lines had to be moved every thirty years the economy would suffer. Jackson says the years 2100, and 2050, are good points of reference.
"2100 is sometimes used because we can't think of even greater time frames. Sea level won't stop in 2100, it will keep going up in 2200, 2300 and 2500 even once we stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that's something people don't understand, from my experience. Sea level rise goes on for five hundred or a thousand years after we stabilize the atmosphere's composition."
But many policy makers and coastal land developers think the predictions are exaggerated. One such agency, NC-20, a coastal development organization that works with all twenty coastal North Carolina counties advocating for future development, think the CRC's predictions are based on faulty data. A science advisor at NC-20 produced a lengthy report disputing the CRC's study pointing out among other things its attempt to generalize its predictions based on one area's sea level changes, that area being Duck in Dare County. Republican Senate Representative of Johnston and Wayne Counties, David Rouzer, reintroduced bill 819 this June and spoke in favor of NC-20's position that coastal areas prepare for a sea level rise of about eight inches over the next hundred years. He says the CRC made a mistake in trying to generalize the data.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense to most people to take data from one part of the state where the ground is sinking to use that and extrapolate that data to promote rules and regulations for every other area along the coast of North Carolina."
Grounds subsidence, or land sinkage, is a phenomenon that might be caused in North Carolina by the dredging of waters, which redistributes bottom sediment on the sea bed. Another reason this might be occurring is over pumping water from aquifers. As a result, the bill calls for a study of waters adjacent to the mouth of the Cape Fear River, to determine whether a new area of hazard concern should be designated.
Although the bill's language is aimed at questioning the science of accelerating sea level rates, Senator Rouzer believes that the effects of conforming to the CRC's current predictions will extend past the possibility of the presumed faulty data.
"There's a whole host of items, a domino effect that would really hamper the economy in these counties and that's really what the bill was aimed at."
More specifically, Rouzer says he is worried about the housing market, and the losses that this part of the economy may undergo.
"Issues ranging from property values to tax revenues for the counties that are on the coast, insurance rates, storm water rules and regulations that might be impacted."
The law will also have a heavy impact on planning departments in all the coastal counties. Director of the Carteret County Planning Department, Jim Jennings, says that current hazard areas are sufficient.
"We're probably okay here with a six, seven, eight inch rise to the end of the century because the North Carolina building code already requires what is called a one foot free board above the flood plain when something is built."
Jennings also believes that the CRC published faulty data, and says the bill will help slow down major decisions until a better scientific study is completed.
"It saves a lot of communities and businesses a lot of heartache that may be totally unnecessary."
Although the 2010 study made some heavy assumptions, and caused some uproar, the CRC made no indication that these predictions should be law, they intended that planners use them only as a suggestion for their future planning, especially for commercial building.
There are concerns all around for the scientific community, planning departments, Senator Rouzer and his supporters, the division of coastal management, and the CRC. Public Information officer for the division of coastal management, Michelle Walker, is concerned about the public's knowledge of the effects of climate.
"I would say that the people most affected by this bill are people who live, work, and vacation at the coast."
Despite overwhelming evidence from scientists around the world that global warming is in fact happening, and that it has at least something to do with human activity, Republican Senator Rouzer questions the existence of this global warming.
"The earth was warming and cooling long before the industrial revolution and I think most folks if you look at history here would say how much influence does man made activity have on these matters."
Professor Jackson, along with many others in the scientific community, are concerned about how this bill is actually going to work if it does get passed.
"For the scientific community the language of the bill is confusing it restricts city planners and state scientists from being able to use the best data and science available to them. It's already clear that sea level rise is increasing and that the rate of sea level rise is speeding up, it's accelerating."
Along with the engineers and scientists at the CRC, Chairman Bob Emory, is skeptical of policy maker's attempts to impose a law onto the coastal North Carolina Communities.
"I am concerned that the bill could have the effect of limiting the science that could be looked at when developing rates of sea level rise for NC. I don't think it's appropriate for legislation to limit the scope of science that can be considered."
House bill 819 passed the Senate on Tuesday, and is now headed to the House. If the bill doesn't pass there will be no change to any policy, but if it does the law requires that the CRC undergo new studies on ocean set back requirements and the lines that mark inlet hazard areas, and that all data on sea level change used for regulatory purposes be restricted to data after 1900. When asked about the use of future socio-economic data vs. scientific data, Professor Jackson says when comparing human behavior and the oceans behavior predicting the patterns of nature are much more quantifiable.