Structures that are usually considered permanent have a habit of getting moved around on North Carolina's Outer Banks.
Roads, for example, are often pushed westward as waves eat away at the nearby shoreline. Three-story beach homes are frequently jacked up and carried farther inland. And in 1999, even the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was placed onto a system of rails and roller dollies and pulled 2,900 feet away from a swiftly encroaching Atlantic Ocean.
Faced with the realities of a low-lying, constantly shifting shoreline, it's hard to find North Carolinians who deny the sea is rising. But for the state's coastal land-use planners, the real questions are: How quickly, and by how much?
North Carolina law dictates that in less than a year, a 15-member group of volunteer geologists and engineers assembled under the state's Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), called the Science Panel on Coastal Hazards, must provide answers to those questions.
But as March 31, 2015, approaches, some of the science panel's experts are feeling anxious. The last time they came up with a sea-level-rise projection for North Carolina, it caused such an uproar that state lawmakers came close to banning its use -- permanently.
The science panel is also unfamiliar with the new CRC. Last year, the state's Republican-led Legislature reduced the number of its members from 15 to 13 and replaced all but four of its previous members, eliminating spots previously held by marine scientists and conservation group leaders to make room for a membership that some say is far more pro-development. How might the new CRC fill four current vacancies on the science panel? One CRC member says he wants people with a history of questioning human-caused climate change.
"We don't know what's going to come of this, whether the new commission is going to be interested in getting scientific advice or they just want to go with their gut feelings about things," explained panel member Steve Benton, a former North Carolina Division of Coastal Management employee.
'Elimination by slow death'?
Panel member Stan Riggs, a professor of marine and coastal geology at East Carolina University, said the CRC doesn't seem to want advice from the panel, which has met only once since the more conservative CRC was formed. "It's elimination by slow death, I think," he said.
According to Riggs, the science panel was originally formed in 1996 following the devastation of hurricanes Bertha and Fran. He and two other coastal geologists met with the CRC to propose a scientific support team, with the idea that "if we put some science behind this Division of Coastal Management, we could prevent an awful lot of the damage that we were seeing," Riggs said.
Their proposal was accepted, and with the addition of 10 more veteran coastal engineers and geologists from top agencies and universities around the state, they got to work.
But in 2012, the panel made national news after North Carolina's H.B. 819 placed a four-year hold on regulations based on its prediction that, due to climate change, the state could see 39 inches of sea-level rise by 2100.
This legislation, the same bill that requires the panel to draft a new report by next March, was toned down from its original version and was pushed forward by an economic development group called NC-20. NC-20 rejects the notion of accelerated sea-level rise and regularly lobbies against raising insurance rates on coastal homes.
H.B. 819, which NC-20 considers one of its highest achievements, calls for the science panel to "address the full range ... of sea level change data," including "sea level fall" and "deceleration of sea-level rise" (ClimateWire, July 5, 2012).
"There's been no signal of CO2 increase with any signal of temperature increase or sea-level rise," said Larry Baldwin, NC-20's vice president of regulatory affairs, who is also one of the four holdover members of the CRC.
Baldwin explained that the 39-inch projection would place 2,000 square miles of taxable real estate out of commission. "Models are as good as the inputs and the assumptions put into them. If those assumptions or models are wrong, we could make some very bad policy on that," he said.
Science panel member Spencer Rogers, an engineer with the North Carolina Sea Grant, puts an optimistic spin on 2012's outcome. "Not many states in the nation have a legislative requirement to study sea-level rise," Rogers said. But he added, "It's too early to tell how the commission is going to use the panel."
No 'agenda science' allowed
The new CRC chairman, Frank Gorham, said in an interview that the commission is indeed rethinking the science panel's job description, although he does intend to continue to use the panel in some fashion.
Gorham, whose day job is heading an oil and gas investment business, said he is "very comfortable with working with scientists" but added that he is "not comfortable with the statement ... that we're going to have what I call a 'hockey stick.'"
"I do not believe that anybody is smart enough to say it's going to rise 39 inches," he said, adding that he also dislikes what he calls "agenda science."
"It is a very tough balancing act with some of these people who come in and say, 'No, we must tell these people that we must relocate their homes,'" Gorham said. "How do you do that? I won't do that. I don't have the right to deny someone their dream."
Baldwin said he wants to fill the panel's four vacancies with people who would "bring diversity into the conversation."
"We need to hear not just one side of the facts, we need all of the facts," Baldwin added. "One of the things we'll hopefully be able to do is get people with the minority opinion on there."
Before an August 2013 CRC meeting intended to fill the empty panel seats was canceled, Baldwin had nominated four men who seemed to fit this description.
One was Nicola Scafetta of Duke University, who has argued that most climate warming since the 1970s can be accounted for by natural cycles in the solar system. Another was David Burton, NC-20's own science adviser, who largely rejects the panel's previous conclusions, denying that a warming planet will bring about accelerated sea-level rise.
"If you want to get a balanced answer from somebody on a highly politicized issue, you need to have a politically balanced panel," Burton said in a phone interview. "Right now, there are no Republicans on the panel."
Baldwin said that when the time comes to fill the vacancies, likely early this summer, he will "probably" nominate these men again.
If they become members, some of the science panel's veterans could bail. One of them, Charles Peterson of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said some of the potential nominees were "not top scientists, and in many cases not scientists at all, but simply [represent] a policy position."
Time for a robust debate?
Panel member Riggs noted that the better parts of six coastal counties today sit only 1 foot above sea level. In his opinion, it's not the slow, steady rise of the ocean but coastal storms that present the most urgent threat.
"The land along the shoreline along those areas is just being ripped out at 100 feet a storm," Riggs said. "The tipping point in my opinion is not 100 years from now at 2100, it's right now."
Some of North Carolina's coastal communities have already begun to adapt to the hazards of more frequent storms and sea-level rise.
The Outer Banks village of Nags Head, for example, recently financed a $36 million beach renourishment project along 10 miles of its shoreline with taxes on tourists and local properties, a project the town hopes will last a decade.
Panel member Benton, however, is of the opinion that such small-scale efforts are equivalent to sticking a finger in a dike. "The real problem is recognizing what the real problem is, the magnitude of the problem."
Nags Head Town Manager Cliff Ogburn said an accurate sea-level-rise prediction would help coastal planners like him determine uniform, accurate setbacks and freeboard heights for construction. Today, he said, there are eight homes in Nags Head with waves lapping at their foundations.
The moratorium on the panel's sea-level-rise projection has left planners like him "in limbo," Ogburn said.
"Pick the number. ... We're just waiting for somebody to decide an accurate projection," he added. "I wish people 40 years ago would have imagined that we'd have houses falling into the ocean."
This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, which is supported by multiple foundations and universities.