Bad News for N.C. Coast

Bad news this week for us along the North Carolina coast: The Antarctic ice sheet is melting three times faster than it did 10 years ago, according to research published Wednesday in the journal “Nature.” If the acceleration continues – and there’s no reason to think it won’t – rising seas will begin to flood many low-lying areas of the globe far sooner than anyone had feared. After South Florida, the flat North Carolina coast is considered the most vulnerable real estate on the East Coast.

The map, produced by scientists at East Carolina University, shows areas along the Outer Banks and in northeast North Carolina, that are vulnerable to flooding from sea-level rise. A three-foot rise, which is predicted by the end of the century, would flood everything in red. Much of the Outer Banks would be underwater.

Scientists involved with the new research think we have, at best, 10 years to get our carbon emissions under control to escape the worst consequences of a changed climate.

Good luck with that.

As an old environmental reporter, I know the maxim of the trade: Don’t dwell too heavily on the negative. Give readers hope that solutions are possible.

But I’ve been writing about climate change since the 1980s, when it all sounded so fantastic and futuristic, and I must be honest. I fear it is far too late to do anything meaningful that will greatly change the future we have so foolishly and blindly blundered toward. Had we back then taken even small steps to cut our carbon emissions, we’d have a chance today to rewrite the script. At the time, though, we had a rudimentary scientific understanding of the atmosphere. The computer models we used to simulate it were crude and inconsistent. Understandably, passing policies that would affect almost every facet of life was politically impossible.

So, we predictably did nothing.

We now know a great deal more. There is no longer a scientific debate about what’s causing our atmosphere to warm and our seas to rise at a rate unseen in many thousands of years. Those computer models are now very sophisticated and have accurately predicted many of the consequences of a changing climate. If anything, they have been far too conservative. The rate of change is outpacing the assumptions and science that drive the simulations. Things are happening faster than we thought they would.

While our science has advanced, our politics has moved backwards. Climate change, like the minimum wage or health care or immigration reform, has joined the mix of rancorous politics with the two parties at opposites. One party wants to take cautious action; the other party has convinced itself that none of this is happening or, if it is, it ain’t our fault.

A cottage industry of deniers, fueled by big money from secretive donors and fossil fuel industries and supported by conservative media, sows doubt and doles out campaign contributions. It’s the playbook that the tobacco industry devised and followed for decades to forestall government action on cigarette smoking.

So, we predictably still do nothing. In fact, we go backwards. New policies to ease auto mileage standards and restrictions on coal-fired power plants will only make things worse. Pulling out of the Paris Accord and removing climate data from government websites are signs that none of this will change soon.

So, we will continue to do nothing.

A spring tide in March 2018 flooded N.C. 12 in Avon on Hatteras Island.

But physics doesn’t care. No matter what the political parties believe, no matter who sits in the Oval Office, ice will continue to melt at 32 degrees.

When the glaciers melt, the sea rises. In the past century, it has risen nine inches. A third of that rise occurred in the last 23 years. By 2060, it’s predicted to rise another two feet, with no sign of slowing down. Think about that. Water levels could easily be two feet higher in 40 years. And scientists say that’s a conservative estimate. Dramatic change is now decades not centuries away.

N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks now regularly floods during minor storms. King tides now invade the streets of downtown Manteo and Wrightsville Beach. Saltwater now pollutes groundwater, threatening water supplies all along the coast and farming in Hyde, Tyrrell and other low-lying counties. Oysters now grow in some front yards in Swansboro, fed by the saltwater pushing up storm drains.

And this is only the beginning.

While we may be unable to change the future, we can prepare for it.

Swansboro, I’m pleased to report, is one of the few coastal towns in the state that is taking the first steps to do that. We have partnered with the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, the Sea Grant program at N.C. State University, the Nature Conservancy and the N.C. Coastal Federation to begin looking for ways to adapt the to changing world. For the rest of the year, we’ll identify areas in town that are particularly vulnerable to flooding and storm damage and devise possible policies to lessen that future damage. Any policies would then be considered by the Board of Commissioners for adoption as amendments to our land-use plan, which is also being revised.

The adaptability study is just beginning, and there will be several public meetings later in the year. I’ll keep you posted here.

(NOTE: While I welcome your comments, I won’t allow this space or may Facebook page to be used to further the false debate about the causes of climate change. We can debate what the consequences might be and what we should do about them, but I’ll delete any comments that argue it isn’t happening, regardless of the sources or bogus science cited. Let me apologize in advance if that offends you, but these are my pages and I make the rules.)


Author: Frank Tursi

Author, Journalist and mayor pro temp of Swansboro, NC

2 thoughts on “Bad News for N.C. Coast”

  1. Turs,
    I had forgotten what good journalism looks like, because the W-S Journal is a shadow of the paper that it once was. There is simply a lack of real writing skills.

    Phil shared your blog site with me, and I find myself enjoying the joy and despair of small town government, which, in the grand scheme of things, is no different than what happens on a larger scale.

    Thanks again for the writing; I recall fondly our touch football games and of course, who could forget “Bob.”

    Your friend in Winston-Salem,
    Dan Ariail


    1. Good to hear from you, Danny. Thanks for the kind words. It pains me also to see what has happened to the Journal. I’m proud to say I worked there when I did with so many fine writers and journalists. And that I played for Bob.

      Come see me if you’re ever down this way. I have an extra pair of waders you can borrow.



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