Click here for a transcript of the Effects of Rising Sea Level on Coastal North Carolina - "Sea Change" Video.
The following program is shot in 4k high dynamic range and broadcast in high definition from Capitol Broadcasting Company.
Bill Leslie, WRAL-TV: The sea has been rising for thousands of years.
Man: It continues on this upward, increasing pattern.
Leslie: Scientists predict about a three-foot rise in sea level along our coast by the end of the century.
Man: This is not something we have to deal with a hundred years from now, we have to deal with it right now.
Leslie: But beach communities are dealing with sea level rise right now.
2nd Man: We are retreating by default.
Leslie: Mainland coastal communities are dealing with it too.
Woman: They have water that they need to move now.
Leslie: Saltwater is invading forests and farms.
Man: Some of these fields here are at or below sea level.
Leslie: It's inundating a federal Wildlife Refuge.
Man: There's places that are eroding on average 45 feet a year.
Leslie: Across northeastern North Carolina, water is pumping, dikes are blocking, and homes are rising.
Man: Being up here you feel a lot better.
Leslie: But sea level isn't rising above politics.
News Reporter on TV: The law makes it illegal for North Carolina to consider scenarios of accelerating rates of sea-level rise.
Woman: We're made fools of.
Man: Sea level rises is not a theory, it's a measurement.
Leslie: With a measure of uncertainty for our coast.
Leslie: Ben Huss is a bail bondsman in Newton, North Carolina.
Man: ...check on his court date, make sure he hadn't already missed it.
Ben Huss: You are a modern-day bounty hunter when the guy doesn't show up for court.
Leslie: The job is risky.
Huss: The bigger bond, you know that's more risk for us. But it's also more money in your pocket. Here he is.
Leslie: So what is the connection between a bail bondsman in Newton and sea-level rise? Well, Huss is also the owner of this beach house made famous in the 2008 movie Nights in Rodanthe starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane.
Diane Lane: Four nights, leaving Tuesday.
Richard Gere: Pretty early. I've got a flight to catch.
Huss: I was just enthralled with it, with the movie and the house also. At high tide, the water was coming under the house, and at low tide, it would come up to the front steps.
Leslie: Huss decided to take another risk. He bought the house in 2009.
Huss: I was going to save that house to the extent that I would probably die trying.
Leslie: Huss hired the same contractor who moved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1999.
Huss: They tell me in one hour the house is going down the road.
Leslie: He moved the house nearly 300 feet from the ocean, but the ocean is following.
Huss: So now we're down to about 250 feet. There is something to the global warming in our environment, with the hotter temperatures. It's making oceans rise. That's a big enemy of any any house that's on the coast.
Leslie: Sea level rise makes erosion worse. Erosion has cost Nags Head several rows of houses over the years.
Man: They seem to be the poster child and the picture of sea level rise, which we don't want to be that.
Leslie: From 1870 to 1924, global sea-level rise has been less than a millimeter a year.
Stan Riggs, Coastal Geologist: The process of sea-level change on a global basis it's really a slow, gradual process. It's like filling your bathtub gently.
Leslie: But Riggs says global sea-level rise is accelerating. Since 1993, the rate has quadrupled to 3.2 millimeters a year. He says sea level rise is accelerating because climate change is warming the oceans. Here in North Carolina, tidal gauges show the rate of sea level rise is less than the global average
Spencer Rogers, Geologist: On average sea level has been rising annually about the thickness of a nickel every year, for at least the last 80 years.
Leslie: But Rogers expects that to change.
Rogers: We think sea level is going to accelerate in the future, even though we haven't seen it in the historical record of our gauges. But it's almost certain to occur in the future.
Leslie: Right now, scientific projections are for sea level along our coast to rise anywhere from 15 to 55 inches between now and the end of the century, with a 39-inch rise being the most likely scenario. Just a 2-foot rise in sea level would inundate much of the Outer Banks. Just imagine places like Rodanthe underwater. Sea level rise is already causing higher storm surges and more flooding. Just last month, Hurricane Jose caused overwash that came through some beachfront homes and flooded highway 12, even though its center was 300 miles offshore.
Rogers: If we look at how we're managing those threats, immediate threats, today we're not doing a very good job of handling the immediate threat.
Leslie: The town of nags head has been dealing with the shoreline threat through beach renourishment.
Cliff Ogburn, Nags Head Town Manager: Our will is to continue to nurse the beach as long as we can afford to do so. And as long as we have a sand resource that we can replenish the beach with, we're gonna continue to maintain the beach.
Leslie: The town has also required new homes to be built further from the ocean and higher in elevation. The problem is, there's little room left for new construction. The town is nearly 90% developed.
Ogburn: I wish 30 years ago they knew then what we know now.
Leslie: Lawsuits have hampered the town's ability to move homes out of harm's way and condemn and remove ones already on the beach.
Ogburn: We lost some of our appetite for this because the legal challenges are expensive and they do cost the taxpayer quite a lot of money to deal with these.
Leslie: Meantime, sea-level rise is also affecting groundwater.
Ogburn: It's rising and it's rising fairly quickly.
Leslie: Which contributes to flooding during heavy rains. Last month, the town of Nags Head adopted a comprehensive study that identifies and prioritizes its vulnerabilities to sea-level rise.
Ogburn: Regardless of where you fall on the science, and how much it's gonna rise and how fast, and how much, it seemed irresponsible for us to not plan ahead.
Leslie: The town solicited input from residents and business owners. It even formed a climate change and sea level rise adaptation committee.
Ogburn: And then we started rewriting our codes, or addressing climate change and sea-level rise into our building codes.
Leslie: North Carolina Sea Grant partnered with the town to develop the study and use it to start developing an adaptation plan.
Jessica Whitehead, NC Sea Grant: We've had elected officials there who have been engaged through the entire process. They're really serious about making this happen.
Leslie: The plan will focus on critical infrastructure over commercial and residential development.
Whitehead: To really begin thinking about, okay, at what point are we going to have a problem, at what point do we reach a threshold where we will have some negative consequences, and how do we keep that from happening?
Leslie: For the town of Nags Head, the overriding goal is to stay put as long as possible.
Ogburn: You know, we can't relocate. We can't pick up the town and move anywhere else.
Huss: So from originally built, in this picture, with 400 feet of beachfront, down to no beachfront.
Leslie: Benn Huss already moves his beloved Nights in Rodanthe's house once. He's hoping he doesn't have to move it again.
Huss: We're hoping to get 15 more years, maybe, before the water comes up to the edge and up to the front steps. And it'll be there for who knows how long.
Leslie: With a 1.2 billion dollar annual tourism economy, the Outer Banks may get most of the attention when it comes to sea-level rise. But next, the impact may be even greater further inland.
Brian Boutin, Nature Conservancy: What we're seeing here is erosion rates anywhere in the range of 5 to 15 feet per year. In some places, we're getting as much as 45 feet a year.
Leslie: When Hurricane Emma threatened North Carolina last month, Hyde County Water and Flood control coordinator Daniel Brin went out to inspect the dike and tidal gates. They help protect the community of Swan Quarter.
Daniel Brin, Hyde County: Make sure that any debris that's holding gates opened that would allow tidewater to seep past.
Leslie: The gates help keep out salt water from storm surges and allow fresh water from heavy rains to drain to help prevent flooding. Swann Quarter is the county seat and where most of the county's 5,500 residents live. The County started construction on this 11-mile dike in the mid-80s to help protect Swann Quarter from storm surge coming off nearby Swann Quarter Bay and the Pamlico Sound. The county sped up dike construction after Hurricane Isabel flooded Swann quarter in 2003.
Brin: Isabel was a huge wake-up call.
Leslie: The dike was completed just before Hurricane Irene in 2011 and saved the town from Irene storm surge.
Brin: Right here, where you're looking now, the water was maybe three or four inches from the top of the dike. And inside you and I would be standing on grass right here.
Leslie: But the entire county is vulnerable to flooding. Most of it is less than three feet above sea level.
Brin: About 85% of the county's within the hundred-year flood plain.
Leslie: The county has a network of drainage canals and pumping stations.
Brin: And this pump is used to remove water from the agricultural land and improve land upstream, to lift it and then to move it out work on to the Pamlico Sound.
Leslie: Saltwater can ruin farmland, risking the county's nearly two hundred million dollars in annual crop sales.
Mike Burchell, NC State Professor: t's a constant battle against the water down here in hide county.
Leslie: This shows just what farmers here are up against. The same storm surge from Jose pushed this salt water three miles inland from the Alligator River and into a drainage ditch alongside Hyde County farmland. Local farmers plug the ditch to try to keep the water out but the plug is failing.
Burchell: They're seeing more evidence that salt water is moving into these canal systems and influencing negatively their agricultural production.
Leslie: Burchell is an NC State professor doing research to try and help.
Burchell: We're trying to see how much the waters rising and how salty that water is, at these different locations.
Leslie: Burchell hopes he can help farmers improve existing infrastructure and develop new technologies to battle saltwater intrusion into their fields.
Burchell: As long as it makes economic sense, they'll fight.
Leslie: The fight will get tougher. This graphic shows just how a two-foot sea level rise would inundate much of the Albemarle-Pamela Peninsula, including much of Hyde County. It would put communities like Englehart underwater.
Stan Riggs: We have many shorelines that are less than 1 foot in elevation. And if you raise it two feet, we've got the better part of six counties that are gone. They're underwater. They're going underwater right this minute.
Leslie: Like Nags Head, Hyde County partnered with North Carolina Sea Grant to develop a plan to adapt to sea level rise. It focuses more on immediate, rather than long-term, threats.
Whitehead: Because if you're not there five years from now, you can't be there thirty years from now.
Leslie: The county identified problem areas, examined infrastructure improvements, and published a flood guide for residents. It also helped identify homes that need to be elevated. Chris Hilbert helps provide grants through FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program to cover the cost of elevating homes.
Chris Hilbert: We had a recent house that was paying about four thousand dollars a year in flood insurance and when they got renewed, after the elevation, it reduced down to four hundred dollars.
Leslie: More importantly, it gets people like Bertha and Solomon Cooper out of harm's way. Their house in Swan Quarter flooded three times.
Solomon Cooper: We had just about four foot of water each time.
Leslie: The last time was during Hurricane Irene. Cooper's home was on the wrong side of the dike and filled with water.
Woman: They lost everything.
Leslie: Hilbert helped Cooper get a grant to tear down his old home and build a new one that's elevated and in a less flood-prone area. Cooper says he feels much more prepared for the next storm.
Cooper: Well you feel a little better now. You know you probably have something to come back to, you know.
Leslie: Like many Hyde County residents, Cooper plans to stay.
Brin: The people here in Hyde County are resilient folks, that's why we're still here now.
Leslie: And they understand the risks.
Brin: Nowhere else in the state I would think you would get a broader consensus that sea-level rise is real than you would here in Hyde County.
Boutin: This road used to extend well beyond where that piling is out there in the water. Just a few years back, just five years ago.
Leslie: The Nature Conservancy's Brian Boutin points out the land that's being lost to sea level rise in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge covers 157 thousand acres of mainland Hyde and Deer counties. And by the end of this century...
Scott Lanier, Refuge Manager: ..a lot of the refuge could be underwater.
Leslie: Scott Lanier was one of the original three employees of the refuge in 1985. He left in 1991 and returned 25 years later.
Lanier: I just looked around and thought , my word, what is happening in this place? This change in habitat is is really unreal. What's going on?
Leslie: Marshes had turned to open water, land into marsh, and woods into ghost forests of dead trees.
Lanier: The easy button would be. oh well. you know there's nothing we can do. What's gonna happen is gonna happen. We're not gonna do that.
Leslie: Instead the refuge partnered with the Nature Conservancy on a project to adapt to sea level rise. Water control devices have been installed.
Boutin: What we're actually doing is creating more of a system where the freshwater is pushing the salt water back towards the sound.
Leslie: More salt-tolerant vegetation is being planted and oyster reefs have been installed to slow down shoreline erosion.
Boutin: ...and that helps to keep this ecosystem intact. It helps to slow the rate of erosion to something that's more natural and something that we would normally see in an area like this.
Lanier: You're preparing for what's gonna happen in the future and just slowing that whole rate of change down.
Leslie: Giving the wildlife here a better chance to catch up, adapt, or migrate inland.
Lanier: We're hanging on to what we got as long as we can.
Leslie: Next, successfully adapting to sea-level rise may mean putting policy over politics.
Unfortunately, sea-level rise and climate have become political issues, not science.
Stephen Colbert on TV: If your science gives you a result that you don't like, pass a law saying that the result is illegal. Problem solved.
Leslie: That's comedian Stephen Colbert lampooning our state legislature in 2012. It was over a law that prohibited coastal communities from using a state science panel report that looked at sea level rise projections to the year 2100. The panel later amended the report to look out only 30 years. That, of course, makes the projections look less dire. A probable rise of 7 to 12 inches instead of 15 to 55.
Riggs: It's important to show what's vulnerable out here.
Leslie: Coastal geologist Stan Riggs served on that panel.
Riggs: What the state of North Carolina did was throw that part of the coastal system under the bus. They threw the science under the bus, but they also threw the people under the bus.
Leslie: Riggs says the state can't properly plan major infrastructure projects like the new 100-year Bonner Bridge, if it's only looking at 30-year sea level rise projections. NC20, a group representing the state's coastal counties, pushed for the change.
Riggs: With the idea that the public will rebel against this, they won't come to our beaches anymore, it's gonna kill the coastal economy.
Leslie: But NC-20 says it was more about the initial report taking away local control.
Willo Kelly, President, NC-20: And it said in the report, that local governments shall, and the one thing you learn when you're looking at any legal document or legislation, there's a big difference between shall and may. And it said local government shall use a a kind of an official rate of sea level rise in local planning purposes.
Leslie: Kelley says planning for an uncertain scenario more than 80 years out is unrealistic for coastal communities.
Kelly: Climate change it's a certainty. Modeling though is not a certainty. I think the 30 years everyone could kind of wrap their heads around it and understand it.
Leslie: And she says communities can still look at the longer projections if they choose to. Spencer Rogers, who also served on the state science panel, agrees that the 2100 timeline is too distant.
Rogers: The problem is that our ability to predict that far in the future gets weaker and weaker with what evidence we have in hand and what we're able to model.
Leslie: As for future sea-level rise planning, a recent study by NC State and Appalachian State Universities found that most coastal communities are doing little to none. But the study also shows that the more certainty there is in predictions and impacts, the more willing communities are to plan.
Brian Bulla, Associate Professor, ASU: The evidence for these coastal officials will continue to come in and hopefully that will increase their comfort level and ability to to make some adaptive actions.
Leslie: Right now Nags Head and Wilmington are the only coastal communities that specifically mentioned sea level rise in their comprehensive plans.
Rogers: Unfortunately sea level rise and climate have become political issues, not science. But the good news is, they're often making the same decisions they would need to do for sea level rise adaptations, for other coastal hazard reasons. So they're there making changes for coastal hazards, they're not necessarily doing it directly for sea-level rise. And that's understandable because it's a lot more immediate threat for a hurricane this year than it is for sea level rise 100 years in the future.
Leslie: More coastal communities are requiring home foundations to be higher.
Riggs: We can engineer our way out of a lot of things, but not everything. At some point, you've got to back off.
Leslie: And while there has been some notable backing off on the Outer Banks, people there say total retreat is not realistic.
Kelly: Is there an expiration date for the Outer Banks? I have no idea of knowing that. And I know that we're going to go along, and do what we need to do, and do the best that we can do today, and in planning for a future, and protect our livelihoods, and protect our culture.
Leslie: And in 2100...
Kelly: Will it be here? Will it not be here?
Kelly: And none of us can answer that question and we're not going to be here to know it.