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The Debate Over Sea Level Rise In NC


Say the words climate change or global warming and you usually draw a strong reaction from most people. Some call it junk science and a waste of time. Others wonder why more isn't being done to deal with the issue.

Here in North Carolina there has been a lot of research into just what climate change, or global warming, could mean for us. There's also been a lot of time and effort put in by others who say it's just not true.

While enjoying the beach is the perfect day for many in Eastern Carolina, could the beautiful coast and its inviting water we love so much, also be a threat to our way of life?

Dr. Stephen Culver is the chairman of the Department of Geological Sciences at ECU. He says, "Much of Eastern North Carolina is going to have problems being inundated with water more regularly than it is today."

A few years ago, at the request of the state, Dr. Culver and nearly 30 other faculty members, put together a report about global warming and coastal North Carolina. Other universities across the state did the same thing.

Dr. Culver's research is also published in the book, "The Battle For North Carolina's Coast."

Some of Dr. Culver's research is conducted in the core sampling room at ECU where they examine samples of earth taken from river bottoms across the east. Some samples date back thousands and thousands of years.

Dr. Culver says, "And what we do with this different data is reconstruct the past."

And Dr. Culver says knowing what has happened is one factor to help determine what may happen, like a rise in sea level, one of the risks outlined in the report. Dr. Culver says, "Based on geological data from North Carolina, we do know the rate of sea level rise varies through time. It can vary from a millimeter a year, which doesn't sound like much at all, to three to four millimeters a year. That's probably where we are right now."

That, and other research, led the Coastal Resources Commission to estimate that sea level will rise 39 inches by 2100, 87-years from now.

While the state asked for the research from ECU and other universities across North Carolina, the reaction from some state lawmakers, policy makers and other officials, has been less than enthusiastic, to downright denial.

Tom Thompson is chairman of NC-20, a group looking out for the interests of people, businesses and development in 20 coastal counties. He says there's good reason for the push back. Thompson says, "The science is based on speculation."

Thompson says all you have to do is look at the tide gauge in Wilmington, which he says has only gone up 8-inches in the past 100-years and not at all in the last 20, even as carbon dioxide levels, which are said to hasten the effects of climate change, have been steadily increasing.

There's enough doubt over sea level rise that state lawmakers agreed to legislation projecting only an eight inch sea level rise through 2100...seen as a victory for groups like NC-20.

Thompson says, "If we added 39 inches of sea level rise to our land use planning it would affect our homeowners insurance, road building, everything we do."

Dr. Culver says, "If you have an investment you want to protect it, that's absolutely understandable. You have a business, you want to protect it. From a scientific perspective I understand that. But it should not stop me trying to put the information out for people to react and deal with."

Thompson responded saying, "If the science were true we would be the first ones to jump in and say lets prepare for it."

Dr. Culver says the ECU report recommends the state does prepare now, to protect and preserve the very place we all treasure. He says, "The most important thing for us to do in the future is to adapt to climate change. You can't ignore it."

Regardless of what the science does or doesn't show, those enjoying the beach, like Carol Robinson of New Bern, understand the skeptics. "I do because for most of us it's not going to happen during our lifetime, but it will for our grandchildren and that does concern me."

Denny Fisher, vacationing with family from Pennsylvania, tends to lean towards believing the science. "Over the course of time I've seen a lot of changes in the weather. There has to be a reason behind it."

Some beach goers, like Amber Artis of Goldsboro, aren't sure what to make of it all. "I don't know. I'm not sure. Only time will tell."

While the debate continues on climate change and sea level rise, Dr. Culver says a new report is expected to come out in September by the worldwide Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the first since 2007, and will likely show sea level rise increasing more than than the current numbers being used.

The state legislation that bases planning on an 8-inch sea level rise expires in three-years.


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