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Friday, June 15, 2012

Dr. Jeff Masters' take on North Carolina's declaring sea level rise invisible

North Carolina ignores science in sea level planning

by Dr. Jeff Masters, WunderBlog, June 12, 2012

An interesting political battle is underway in North Carolina on how to plan for 21st century sea level rise, reports. Sea level rise scientists commonly cite one meter (3.3 feet) as the expected global sea level rise by 2100, and more than a dozen science panels from coastal states, including a state-appointed science panel in North Carolina, agree. However, a coastal economic development group called NC-20, named for the 20 coastal counties in North Carolina, attacked the report, saying the science was flawed. NC-20 says the state should rely only on historical trends of sea level rise, and not plan for a future where sea level rise might accelerate. North Carolina should plan for only 8 inches of rise by 2100, based on the historical trend in Wilmington, NC, the group says. Republican state legislators introduced a bill that follows this logic, requiring the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission to make development plans assuming sea level rise will not accelerate. On Thursday, a state senate committee signed off on the bill, sending it to the full Senate. NC-20 also successfully made an "intense push" to get the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, which is using a $5 million federal grant to analyze the impact of rising water, to lower its worst-case sea level rise scenario from 1 meter (39 inches) to 15 inches by 2100. 

FIgure 1. Global sea level rise from 1992 to April 2012 as measured by three satellite instruments (TOPEX, Jason-1, and Jason-2). Sea level rise has been relatively constant at about 3.1 mm per year (1.2 inches per decade) during this time period. The big downward dip during 2010 is due to the fact that year had a record amount of precipitation over land areas. By 2011, that precipitation had run-off into the oceans, bringing sea level back up again. Image credit: University of Colorado Sea Level Research Group.

East Carolina University geologist Stan Riggs, a science panel member and coastal science expert, said of the proposed legislation, “We’re throwing this science out completely, and what’s proposed is just crazy for a state that used to be a leader in marine science. You can’t legislate the ocean, and you can’t legislate storms.” 

Our climate change blogger, Dr. Ricky Rood, had this to say in his latest post: "I would dismiss the proposed law as an attempt to legislate away that which stands in the way of our desires to consume and build for our personal imperatives. I would dismiss it as politics and note the names of the un-serious politicians for the next election." 

I agree with both of these assessments. The best science we have argues the planet will continue to warm, melting icecaps, causing accelerated sea level rise. Between 1900 and 2007, global sea level rose at 1.7 mm per year (Bindoff et al., 2007). Between 1993 and 2012, sea level rise accelerated to 3.1 mm per year, a 75% increase over the 20th century rate. If this accelerated rate continues to 2100, global sea level rise will be 10.7 inches, which is higher than the 8-inch rise North Carolina is being told to plan for. 

The continuing accelerating trend in Greenland ice loss since 2000 I blogged about last month should make anyone leery of betting that sea level rise will not accelerate even more in the coming decades. Betting that sea level rise won't accelerate this century is like betting that a slowly intensifying tropical storm will maintain that slow rate of intensification, ignoring that the majority of the computer models are predicting the storm will rapidly intensify into a Category 3 hurricane at landfall. Sure, sometimes the models are wrong, but there is good science behind their predictions. If we wait until storm begins its rapid intensification to act, it will be a very costly mistake. The most sound action would be to prepare for the very plausible bad outcome our science is saying is most likely, instead of putting all of our chips on the low-probability, good-for-business outcome we hope for.

Sea, No Evil
Comedian Steven Colbert has a humorous piece on the new North Carolina sea level legislation in his June 4, 2012, Colbert Report. He uses the phrase "Sea, No Evil" to describe the affair. Some quotes:

"It would be a tragedy to lose precious coastal wildlife habitats to coastal flooding. Those habitats should be lost to developers' bulldozers."

"If your science gives you a result that you don't like, pass a law that the result is illegal--problem solved!"

Comedy Central reports on the recent decision by Virginia lawmakers to phase out use of the terms "climate change" and "sea level rise."

Scientific America blog on the North Carolina sea level rise battle.
Wunderground's Greenland page.
Wunderground's sea level rise page.

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