By Bruce Henderson
You’re in a part of the world where too much water is just as much a problem as too little water,” said Rodney Woolard of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.
After decades of battling floods and saltwater creeping up its network of drainage ditches, Swan Quarter won a $5.2 million stimulus grant to finish a 17-mile dike around the village and surrounding farmland.
J.W. Spencer, chairman of the Hyde Soil and Water Conservation District board, estimates that over the years, thousands of acres of farmland have been taken out of use because of intruding saltwater
Sandbags protect a beach house in south Nags Head, where erosion is undermining the former front row of homes.
Waves crash under a row of beach houses in south Nags Head, which plans a $36 million project to pump fresh sand onto its eroding strand this spring. Rising sea level will only magnify the damages of erosion and storms on the state’s oceanfront and sounds, scientists say. JOHN D. SIMMONS – firstname.lastname@example.org
“It would completely sterilize the land,” he said. “Grass won’t even grow. It starts at the ditch and spreads over the land. You can take two months of saltwater and it can take 20 years to get it out.”
The water has risen since he was a kid, says Spencer, who is a Hyde native. But he attributes that to natural cycles.
“I’m not disputing that we’re not having some global warming, that the average temperature isn’t a little more than it used to be and the sea a little higher,” he said.
“But we don’t have the knowledge that it didn’t happen 1,000 years ago. Or that in 300 years it won’t be going back down again.”
With 325 miles of oceanfront and 5,000 miles of shoreline around its seven sounds, North Carolina has one of the nation’s most diverse coastlines. The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds form the second-largest estuarine system in the lower 48 states. They provide half the nursery grounds for all saltwater fish between Maine and Florida, and nurture most of the state’s most economically important seafood. Commercial fishing brought in $77 million in 2009, while sport fishermen took home nearly 12 million pounds of fish. Coastal tourists spent $2.4 billion that year – more than a third of that on the vulnerable Outer Banks – and the industry employed 30,530 people. Almost $133 billion of coastal property is insured.
North Carolina is a late arrival to global warming.
Last summer’s heat, the warmest on record for the state, reflects an uptick in temperatures that began only in recent decades.
Unlike much of the globe, state climatologist Ryan Boyles says, N.C. temperatures show no significant increase since reliable record keeping began in 1895.
“The models suggest we should be warming, and we are not,” he said. “We don’t know why.”
State temperatures have gone up since the mid-1970s, as they have around the globe. Charlotte’s three warmest years on record were in 1990, 1991 and 1998; six of its 19 hottest years have been logged since 1990. Average annual temperatures are up about 1 degree since 1981 compared to the previous 30 years.
Duke University-led scientists recently linked climate change to intensified Bermuda Highs, the systems that bring hot, humid weather to the East in summer.
But North Carolina’s climate varies so much that no meaningful long-term trends in extreme temperatures, seasonal changes or frost dates emerge, Boyles says.
Temperatures statewide also went up from 1910 to 1950, for example, then cooled.
Overnight lows have gone up in recent decades, but Boyles attributes that to the heat-soaking concrete and asphalt of growing urban areas.
While the state has suffered two devastating droughts since 2000, something similar struck between 1924 and 1934. Tree rings show that other dry spells in the past 1,000 years might have been even longer and drier.
Hurricanes and tropical storms have smacked the N.C. coast hard since 1996, with 12 making landfall in the Southeast. That appears to be part of a natural upswing that typically lasts 25 to 30 years.
Sea-level rise, however, “is closely linked to broader global warming,” the State Climate Office says. Asheville’s National Climatic Data Center says 2010 tied 2005 as the globe’s warmest years on record.
Sea levels are measured both globally and locally.
Global sea level was basically stable for the past 400 to 2,000 years, says the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. Between 1900 and 2000, it rose by an average rate of 6.7 inches a century. Between 1993 and 2003, the rate rose to 12.2 inches a century, although that could be partly due to natural fluctuations.
Relative sea level factors in local conditions, such as the tides, currents, changes in the sea floor and sinking land. It varies from place to place along the same coastline: Levels are going up 16.8 inches a century in Duck, on the northern coast, but just 8.4 inches south in Wilmington.
MANNS HARBOR The sea that sculpted North Carolina’s coast, from its arc of barrier islands to the vast, nurturing sounds, is reshaping it once again.
Water is rising three times faster on the N.C. coast than it did a century ago as warming oceans expand and land ice melts, recent research has found. It’s the beginning of what a N.C. science panel expects will be a 1-meter increase by 2100.
Rising sea level is the clearest signal of climate change in North Carolina. Few places in the United States stand to be more transformed.
About 2,000 square miles of our low, flat coast, an area nearly four times the size of Mecklenburg County, is 1 meter (about 39 inches) or less above water.