"If we stick to business-as-usual it will likely result in a sea level rise of about two meters."
As you might have heard, my home state of North Carolina is trying to legislate against sea level rise. Having denied human nature by banning gay marriage, the legislators, feeling full of themselves, want to take on nature itself.
It all started when a group of respected scientists handed in a state-commissioned report that suggested that it would be prudent to anticipate a one-meter sea level rise along the state’s coastline by the year 2100. Not so fast, said a group of coastal developers, imagining all the soon-to-be underwater land they could no longer sell. With Orwellian brilliance, the developers decided to push for a ban—not on sea level rise itself (which is, even they might concede, impossible), but on any language that admits to it. And the legislators, exhausted from the hard work of dismantling the state education system and bashing gays, but still eager, agreed.
One of the small problems, both practical and intellectual, of this approach, is that there may be no more dramatic example of the effects of the rising sea than the state it may soon be banned in. [Ed. note: The bill requiring North Carolina agencies to ignore the latest scientific predictions of sea level rise passed the state legislature on Tuesday.] Hopefully the legislators don’t go to the beach in the summer, and so won’t be faced with this inconvenient truth. You could say they have buried their heads in the sand, though with regard to the Outer Banks, there may not be much sand left.
"You better see it before it’s gone," Orrin Pilkey said to me a few years ago, before we traveled the Carolina coast from north to south. Pilkey is a retired geology professor emeritus from Duke University who has long been a galvanizing figure in the coastal battles of North Carolina and beyond. When I first called him, he answered the phone, "Orrin Pilkey, world famous geologist," and that flair for drama has been fulfilled in his latest role as the state’s Galileo, its most forceful proponent of the science now deemed heresy by the non-scientists.
Not long after we met, Orrin and I took a tour of the Outer Banks from north to south. As we drove through the towns of Whalebone and Kill Devil Hills, Orrin described the basic math of living by the shore: more and more people are building larger and larger homes closer and closer to the sea just as the shoreline is eroding and the sea level is rising, not to mention the fact that coastal storms, including most obviously Atlantic hurricanes, appear to be becoming more violent. It was one thing back when a few modest cottages sat out on a spit of sand, another when we started pretending that these migrating sandbars could be divvied up into neighborhoods with set property lines. Orrin and I passed the evidence of this fiction, a tight group of McMansions, suburbia on the sand, in places that had had a few shacks and no other homes when Orrin had first studied the area. Back then the lots were 600 feet back to allow for the retreating shoreline, but now the postage stamp-sized lots sit right on the shore.
Our destination for the night was Nags Head, specifically the Nags Head Comfort Inn, a choice of lodging that was not without a certain poetic justice. Orrin explained that the hotel’s name had changed from Ramada to Armada to Comfort, but that the one constant had been its role as a kind of symbol for him of why you didn’t build any sort of large permanent building along the coast.
"The problem is, you can’t move them," he said. "And if you can’t move, they aren’t permanent. The sea will eventually drag them down."