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North Carolina Lawmakers Turning a Blind Eye to Sea Level Reality?

Posted on 28 June 2012 by Rob Painting

Ruler of England, Sweden, and Norway at one time, the accomplishments of King Canute (985-1035AD) were many and it seemed to some of his followers that he was all-powerful. In order to dispel such a notion, and to demonstrate the limitations of human power and influence, King Canute had his throne set by the sea side and commanded the incoming sea to turn back. When the sea paid him no heed his point was made.

The moral of that tale seems to have eluded lawmakers in North Carolina, USA who recently attempted to make it illegal to consider accelerated rates of sea level rise in future planning assessments. Sadly, as with Canute, the sea won't pay any attention to the North Carolina legislature, whether they are successful in turning a blind eye to reality, or not. Professor John Bruno, being a North Carolina resident, has taken a keen interest in these shennanigans, and lays out much of the background story at his blog SeaMonster here, here, here and here.    

Quite ironically, the East Coast of the United States is one of the regions on Earth that are likely to see much greater-than-average rates of sea level rise throughout the 21st Century and beyond. It just so happens that the US East Coast is sinking (more on this in later posts) as a consequence of the loss of the giant Laurentide Ice Sheet, which once covered the upper North American continent at the height of the last Ice Age (Glacial Maximum).  

For some perspective, current rates of North Carolina sea level rise within the conext of the last 2000 years is shown below. A rapid acceleration of sea level rise at North Carolina in the 20th Century is very hard to miss. 

Figure 1 - Sea level reconstruction by Kemp (2011) using sediment from salt marshes in North Carolina. 

Sea level rise - the "Big Picture"

Of all the consequences of global warming one might expect that sea level rise, through the contribution of melting land-based ice, would be one of the easiest to grasp. The general outline is very simple; 65-70 metres of future global sea level rise are locked up in the vast Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets and, as the world warms, more land-based ice will melt and end up in the ocean, raising global sea levels.

But even so, measuring and accounting for sea level change over time is an extraordinarily complex process. Not only do the oceans expand as they warm, but over both short and long time frames regional variation can be quite different to the global average sea level trend. Such is the case with North Carolina, where the sea would be inundating the coast even without global warming, because the coastline itself is sinking.

This complexity, and the sometimes seemingly counter-intuitive regional sea level trends, allows climate science contrarians to confuse uninformed readers with cherry-picked pieces of information. My intention is, over a number of blog posts, to explain the 'big picture' of global sea level rise and how it has evolved over time - to essentially make plainly understood why sea level isn't level. Armed with this knowledge, we can then see how truly absurd the North Carolina proposals are, and why coastal North Carolina residents and lawmakers should be taking scientific advice very seriously. 

Update: North Carolina House of Representatives does u-turn and torpedoes proposed sea level amendment.

Part 2 - This Elastic Earth (What is Glacial Isostatic Adjustment?)  

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Comments

Comments 1 to 12:

  1. I remember thinking, while first reading about this mind-numbingly stupid story, that I thought (imputation of dishonesty snipped)

    I take some solace in that, eventually, the sheer stupidity of this will become apparent to all but the dimmest of lights, and that science, once again, shall become valued and heeded. That they NC lege "torpedoed" the amendment may be a sign of rational thought triumping over those who would deny science, at any and all costs.

    With the help of all here, and all who endeavor to hold out against the forces of dark, and by"common' scientists like me speaking to those we can, we might just win the day.

    *Maybe*.



    "No matter how cynical you get, it's impossible to keep up."

    -Lily Tomlin, "The Search for Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe."
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    Moderator Response: TC: Please refrain from suggestions of dishonesty and all caps, both of which violate the comments policy.
  2. The legislators of North Carolina should remember that the original King Canute (or Knut) lived during the Medieval Warm Period, no doubt enjoying wine from the many English vineyards which flourished back then.

    But even he had to show humility in the face of sea level rise, which respects neither King nor commoner.
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  3. Every member of the North Carolina State Legislature should be required to read:

    Hot spot of accelerated sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast of North America

    This peer-reviewed paper by Asbury H. Sallenger Jr, Kara S. Doran & Peter A. Howd published online June 24 by the journal Nature Climate Change.
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  4. The legislature in NC denies global warming because God will not permit it.
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  5. John (#3),
    It would be nice if they read it and acknowledged the reality of what scientific studies indicate, but it is not as though there were not plenty of other evidence that they have chosen to pretend doesn't exist. I don't think a little more would make any difference to them.
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  6. @ newcrusader
    To quote Bohr's retort to Einstein ...
    Stop telling God what to do.
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  7. I cannot help but remind these images of Irene in NC.

    Each mm of SLR increases the probability of destructions on the pictures. Just wait and see the insurance/reinsurance rates. If the legislators keep denying the obvious the crash (when re won't be able to cover it and Obama won't be able to dig in fed coffer) will be even bigger and more spectacular. NC coast infrastructure in a bubble waiting to burst. You don't need to understand climate science to put big money on it if you're a panter.
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    Moderator Response: [Riccardo - link fixed]
  8. TC@1: I apologize for the all-caps; I simply forgot to revert to another method of emphasis. As for the 'imputations of dishonesty,' I'll let stand the original wording and actions of the legislators in question.
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  9. one thing is missing there: the Evangelicans !
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  10. A century ago the so-called "Indiana Pi Bill" story ended "when one senator observed that the General Assembly lacked the power to define mathematical truth". I was not aware that things have changed.
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  11. It is tragic that most people still live in the time of King Canute. Because they are exempt from current events.
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  12. A big part of what's going on in North Carolina is the ongoing battle between locals and the US federal government over who pays when the inevitable losses due to rising sea levels occur. It isn't so much that lawmakers think they can control the sea.

    New development in areas near the sea that everyone knows will be wiped out one day by sea level rise is encouraged by quirks in existing federal law.

    If you can get away with building it, you can benefit.

    There's the Stafford Act. When the predictable new peak storm surge wipes you out, a disaster declaration by the President is all it takes to turn your area into a massive redevelopment project. You can get the benefits of the economic activity and the enjoyment of the coastal property, and when the storm surge comes, someone else will pay.

    The Act allows the US federal government to pay for rebuilding no matter what, supposedly to put things back the way they were, even though in the face of an accelerating rising sea level common sense would dictate taking that rising sea level into account. "Victims" can be owners of newly constructed rental coastal property wiped out by a storm surge caused by rising sea level everyone knows is coming, and putting things back the way they were can include rebuilding the home and even the beach in front of it, by trucking in sand.

    And there is the federal Flood Insurance program. It was supposed to be an attempt to discourage people from developing in high risk flood prone areas, but in practice in high risk areas exposed to rising sea level it encourages further development that would otherwise not occur because mortgage money was unavailable. (No federally regulated financial institution can write a mortgage unless flood insurance exists). NFIP flood insurance is the only flood insurance that is available in most flood prone areas in the US. Private insurance views flood insurance as basically impossible to write.

    Hence the attempted action by the North Carolina lawmakers that looked to outsiders as if they were attempting to legislate how fast the sea will rise.

    The state has a big say in determining what properties can be insured, because although the national authority FEMA retains the final say, it is the state and locals who draw up the flood insurance maps. This N.C. sea level law was directed at people who draw up the flood insurance rate maps. They were being directed to falsify what the real risk was, as seen by a North Carolina panel, because North Carolina doesn't think it will be required to pay when the flood comes. Once the map has been falsified, development can proceed. If the flood insurance rate map says there is "x" risk, that's what the risk is. FEMA will sell you a flood insurance policy and the bank will grant you a mortgage. At that point it does not matter what scientists have discovered.

    Its an old issue that will become more important as the years go by. Eg: from the 1985 Pilkey et.al. A National Strategy for Beach Preservation

    "Sea level is rising and the American shoreline is retreating. We face economic and environmental realities that leave us two choices: (1) plan a strategic retreat now, or (2) undertake a vastly expensive program of armoring the coastline and, as required, retreating through a series of unpredictable disasters."

    If you add global warming driving accelerated sea level rise to what Pilkey et.al. saw in 1985, you get what FEMA Director Craig Fugate said earlier this year in a speech:

    "We cannot afford to continue to respond to disasters and deal with the consequences under the current model.... Risk that is not mitigated, that is not considered in return on investment calculations, will often set up false economies. We will reach a point where we can no longer subsidize this."
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