That Sinking Feeling
Surveying the beaches in his home state of North Carolina with a world-renowned erosion expert, David Gessner considers the folly of trying to deny what all the sandbags and misguided legislation in the world can never stop: the rising sea
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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.”
After we checked in, we walked around back toward the water, and I saw that the sea was well on its way to dragging down this particular building. The Comfort Inn cantilevered out over the ocean. This was due not to some sort of Frank Lloyd Wright fit of inspiration on its builders’ part, but to nature’s gnawing away the beach below it. Guests at the far end, where we had asked to stay, hung out over the Atlantic and could feel the waves in their sleep. The seaward end of the building had the look of a war-ravaged place.
Obviously there was some irony to Orrin staying at the Inn, which he had written about extensively, and before we had checked in he had worried about being recognized at the desk. He told me that he used to stop here on his annual trip with his Duke geology class, and that one year they had had the good fortune to arrive on the night the swimming pool caved in, its far end dropping like a fallen lower jaw onto the beach.
From the hotel we walked down the sand to the south, where a row of houses stood directly on the low tide beach, hundreds of sandbags humped in front of them. To even call them “bags” is to not get the point across. They were enormous, 10 feet long and terrifically ugly, great lumpish loaves that transformed the beach into a seeming war zone. It looked as if hundreds of drab-colored whales had decided to beach themselves all at once. The problem with sandbags, Orrin explained, was the same as with concrete walls and groins and other attempts to stop the sea. While they might temporarily protect a particular building, they caused down-drift erosion. This meant that the next house down, the house to the south, bore the brunt of the erosion. While piling up sandbags might understandably be viewed as self-protective—I can’t let my house topple into the sea—it was also, at the very least, an unknowing assault on one’s southern neighbor.
“This is just the beginning, of course,” Orrin said. “Coastal storms and erosion have caused this. But the real problem is coming with sea level rise. If the ice of Antarctica and Greenland continue to melt, we’ll see the most radically changing shoreline in thousands of years. Many of the predictions are too conservative. They don’t factor in what is happening in Antarctica and Greenland, and all indications are that the ice melt is increasing in both of these places. A more realistic assessment comes from the state of Rhode Island, a state that obviously has a lot invested in getting the estimate right. They’re assuming that the rise is going to be between three and six feet.”
He paused dramatically.
“If it does get to six feet, we aren’t just going to be worrying about a few beach houses on the Outer Banks,” he said. “We are going to be worrying about Manhattan and Boston.”
I stayed by the sandbags while Orrin walked down to where a small sandbar jutted out into the surf. He turned and stared back at the building. He looked quite dramatic standing out there. What would happen if the sandbags were removed? The buildings would go, at least some of them, during the next big storm. As I watched him, I indulged in a little daydream. I pictured Orrin standing down there on the beach at night, staring up as the Comfort Inn buckled to its stilted knees and fell forward into the ocean. In my vision I armed him with a boom box on which he cranked up Beethoven’s 9th. A slight smile formed below his beard, and a glint of moonlight lit his eyes as the concrete crashed into the surf.
Orrin’s estimate of future sea level rise has changed since that trip. Of course there is a cacophony of numbers, ranging from the preposterously low of a couple of inches—put forth by certain coastal developers—to the apocalyptic high of 20 feet, a number that at first seems alarmist but can’t be entirely discounted, because melting naturally leads to more melting, and once the ice caps start lubricating and sliding, all bets are off.
“Seven feet,” Orrin told me a year or so after that first trip “That’s not a prediction, mind you, but a working figure. Maybe not likely, but a good number for prudent development. If I were in charge of things, that is the figure I would use. I would act as if the seas will rise seven feet by 2100.”
He looked at me to make sure I got the point.
“If the water rises seven feet, you can kiss our barrier islands goodbye,” he said.
I understood that this fact should have been troubling to me, since at the time I lived on one of those islands. But like a lot of us, and like our legislators, I had a hard time really believing the current rash of predictions. Would this really happen? I wanted some confirmation of Orrin’s number, so I decided to go directly to the top and sent an email to Jim Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. I didn’t really expect a reply, but the wired world sometimes holds surprises. About two hours later Hansen wrote back:
“That’s a good figure, in my opinion. If we stick to business-as-usual it will likely result in a sea level rise of about two meters, which is about seven feet. The catch is that if we hit two meters in the order of a century, it means we would be on the way—sea level rise would not stabilize at two meters.”
Of course, there are a lot of numbers floating around. They change, and for good reason. Not long after my walk with Orrin, a chunk of Antarctic ice seven times the size of Manhattan calved off from the Wilkins Ice Shelf, and the predictions have grown more dire.
My brain, like most of ours, tends to focus on the short term. But for a moment I try to stretch my mind. Seven feet. Let’s say we take this figure seriously. Let’s say we accept the fact that Pilkey and Hansen, who spend their lives studying this sort of thing, know more than we do, that their observations and calculations trump our gut feelings that it couldn’t happen, not here, not really. Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that they are serious when they say seven feet. What would that actually mean?
For one thing, it would mean that when I walked down the stairs of my stilted treehouse-style home in North Carolina, I would step directly into the Atlantic. For another, it would mean that islands like the one I lived on would be frequently washed over by storm surges, a process that is already well under way. Of course, as Orrin pointed out back in Nags Head, if the seas really rise seven feet, barrier islands and beach homes will be the least of our national concerns.
The truth is that, despite ever-more sophisticated computer models, no one really knows how much the sea will rise. Even Orrin, while using seven feet as his “working figure,” is skeptical of anyone who speaks with too much certainty on the issue. But in today’s twisted political climate, where mainstream scientists, once revered, are now routinely doubted by non-scientists, it does not pay to voice too much uncertainty. And when Orrin Pilkey speaks emphatically, it is often to combat the bozos who emphatically state that there is no way the sea can possibly rise, with no evidence to support them.
“There are real uncertainties and valid criticisms of global climate change, but these guys are way off base,” Orrin said to me the other day. “We know the sea is rising, and whatever the exact numbers, life does not end in 2100. What we are experiencing, along with the rising sea, is a tsunami of anti-intellectualism. Science is at a new low in the public’s view. Scientists are not respected as we once were, and we are out of our league when we compete with the sharpies, the good talkers and salesmen types. We’d rather be out in our labs or out on our research vessels. I think the coal and oil companies, aided by politicians, have done fundamental damage to science in this country. It’s true we are not always right. But we deserve to be listened to.”
It is no coincidence that these same denying legislators have made it their mission to dismantle the fine public education system that North Carolina spent many decades creating. Because, make no mistake, it is education, knowledge, and science that are the true enemies here. The developers and legislators are against observation, thought, deduction. And so they deny not just the fact that the sea is rising, but Enlightenment values themselves. They tell us not to believe what we see. They tell us not to trust our scientists, or to trust only the fringe scientists who happily support what is profitable.
What chance do these higher values have when pitted against personal profit? The developers, and the legislators they have bought, stand to lose 2,000 square miles of developable land if they admit the sea will rise. So like the mayor in Jaws as the Independence Day crowds approach, they tell everyone that the water is fine, that there’s no shark, and that we should keep building on the beach. And we will keep building, and denying, swearing the sun revolves around the earth, you can be sure of it. Right up until the time our houses sink under the rising water.