Limits on scientists’ North Carolina sea-level rise study could be loosened

This article was corrected on August 30. Coastal Resources Commission Vice Chairman Larry Baldwin was incorrectly identified as the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper.

North Carolina lawmakers’ efforts to limit scientists’ reporting on sea level rise became the butt of jokes back in 2012.

Now a decision from that time, the Coastal Resources Commission determination to have its science advisory panel present sea level rise forecasts looking only 30 years ahead, is being reconsidered.

Coastal Resources Commission put the 30-year limit on its science advisers after legislators and developers tore into its 2010 report estimating the ocean would rise 39 inches by 2100.

As the science advisory panel is preparing for the five-year update to its 2015 sea level rise report, its standing instructions that it look ahead 30 years may change.

“The new charge may be a little bit different,” commission Chairwoman Renee Cahoon said in an interview Monday.

The commission will discuss at its September meeting what instructions to give the science panel, she said.

The legislature pushed back on the 2010 science report forecasting sea level rise would accelerate in the middle of the century. Responding to the report, the state Senate wanted sea-level rise forecasts to rely on historical rates, The News & Observer reported.

The Senate proposal was widely mocked. Stephen Colbert featured it in a segment on his show The Colbert Report. “If your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying that the result is illegal,” he said. “Problem solved.”

The final law, House bill 819, ultimately did not limit the science panel to considering only at historical data, but did require consideration of a range of views, including hypotheses that sea levels would fall or the rise would slow, as it developed the report. The law also prohibited any policies based on sea-level forecasts for four years.

Since then, one study has found sea level rising much faster than predicted, up to five inches from 2011 to 2015, at some locations from North Carolina to Florida, Yale Environment 360 reported.

And as Hurricane Florence bore down on North Carolina last year, the state’s limited sea level rise forecast was back in the national spotlight, The News & Observer reported.

A report this year found that North Carolina was a leading state in building homes that will be in the 10-year flood zone by 2050, if global warming is controlled in line with the Paris climate agreement, the N&O reported.

Larry Baldwin, Coastal Resources Commission vice chairman, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that it’s challenging to make accurate, long-range sea level estimates.

“To project out to 50 to 100 years gets to be a little unreasonable,” he said.