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CoastLine: Sea Level Rise Isn't Stopping Coastal Development

North Topsail Beach before and after Hurricane Matthew. Storm waves and surge eroded and overwashed artificial sand dunes placed at the back of the beach.

Sea levels will rise faster and higher by the end of the century than earlier estimates – even if the world meets the long-term goals set out in the Paris Agreement.  

That’s according to a new United Nations report on climate change just out this week.  If greenhouse gas emissions do not decline, sea levels will rise even faster.  And the sea will continue to rise for centuries because of deep ocean heat and the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

These conclusions are part a Special Report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, approved by the 195 IPCC member governments.  One of the major takeaways:  there’s new evidence showing the benefits of limiting global warming to the lowest possible level.

Coastal development shows no sign of slowing – despite the fact that hurricanes and coastal storms account for sixteen of the twenty most expensive disasters in U.S. history.  That’s according to Pulitzer Prize-winning Author Gilbert Gaul.  In his newest book The Geography of Risk, he notes the cost of recovery from coastal storms far outpaces the costs from earthquakes, wildfires, and tornadoes combined.  The National Academy of Sciences reports that damages from hurricanes and nor’easters have increased substantially over the last century largely because of increases in population and development along the coast. 

In about 80 years – one lifetime, North Carolina’s Inner Banks – the lowermost coastal plain region in the northeastern part of the state -- will be uninhabitable.  The Inner Banks population, according to Coastal Geologist Orrin Pilkey, will have to flee their inundated towns.  They will become climate change refugees. 

Those who have heard of Orrin Pilkey probably also know that he’s advocated for a strategic retreat from the coast for decades.   In his most recent book, Sea Level Rise:  A Slow Tsunami On America’s Shores, Orrin Pilkey, with his son Keith Pilkey, argues a planned retreat is smarter than a forced one:  before the streets are filled with water, before property values crash, before everyone is trying to move at once.   

Bloomberg News reports that 13 million Americans will need to move  because of rising sea levels – causing an economic disruption that could rival the finanical crisis of 2008.

The National Flood Insurance Program carries the risk for five million of the riskiest properties in the United States.  Since it’s inception in 1968, it’s lost more than $40 billion dollars.  It’s set to expire at the end of September, but it’s not unusual for Congress to wait until the last minute to re-authorize the program. 


Orrin Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology [Earth & Ocean Sciences] at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.  He’s also the Founder and Director Emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines – based at Western Carolina University.  His most recent book is Sea Level Rise:  A Slow Tsunami On America's Shores.

Gilbert M. Gaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author; he’s been short-listed for the Pulitzer four other times.  He worked for more than 35 years as an investigative journalist for The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers.  His latest book, The Geography Of Risk, is out this month.  

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.