Sea Level Rise And The Cape Fear Region This Century

Oct 15, 2019

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists, international governmental bodies, and research institutes all agree: climate change is real. And with that comes sea level rise. What is unclear, however, is how fast it may happen. 

In a recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the forecast is alarming – and the process is accelerating. 

(USCG Diligence boat motor engines)

I’m standing just off the stern of the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence, in downtown Wilmington. Next to me is Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette. We are looking across the Cape Fear at Eagle’s Island.

He’s talking about what scientists are predicting.

“So Eagle's Island would be underwater, virtually all of the time. And virtually all of the Island would be underwater. You'd see almost all of Water Street underwater, portions of the streets leading down to Water Street. The Sutton Coal Ash Facility, just upriver would be, you know, Sutton Lake would be overtopped by the Cape Fear River at some point. And so you'd have the river, you know, right up against the coal ash storage area and those old coal ash ponds.”

He says later this century, it doesn’t get much better further upriver either.

“If you worked your way further upriver, you know, you'd have hog lagoons, you'd have poultry farms, these large factory size farms. It would all be, kind of seriously imperiled by rising water levels. You'd see saltwater moving further up as sea level rose. You'd see more and more of the dead Cypress trees that you see as you go over the Martin Luther King Jr Parkway and that kind of thing. You'd see ecosystems changing because salt water changes ecosystems as it moves further up the river.”

According to a United Nations report on climate change out last month, sea levels will rise faster and higher than earlier estimates.  And if greenhouse gas emissions do not decline, sea levels will rise even faster still.

The UN report, written by more than 100 climate and marine scientists from more than 36 countries predicts that if emissions continue to rise, the sea level could increase between two and 3.6 feet by 2100.

Some scientists expect those levels to be even higher.

“Scientists very commonly underestimate the sea level rise just by the nature of how scientists work together. And so I think we should really look at four to six feet.”

That’s Orrin Pilkey Professor Emeritus of Coastal Geology at Duke University and author of Sea Level Rise:  A Slow Tsunami On America's Shores. He’s not alone in thinking by the end of this century sea level rise could be at six feet.

Gilbert M. Gaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author. His latest book The Geography Of Risk, was just published.

“Were sea level rise to accelerate and by the end of this century be say six foot, which is not entirely out of the realm of possibility, a number of researchers use that number. Up to a million homes on the coast would be underwater. A million homes underwater. Think about that. I mean, that's a stunning thing. Think of the property depreciation, the damage, the destruction. Who's going to pay for all of that? Are the people going to retreat or not?”

And scientists say with the ocean rise, come stronger storms. Orrin Pilkey.

“Besides raising the sea level, it is also going to increase the intensity of the storms, which we've seen certainly in the last three years, and also in which we have really seen very recently right here in Wilmington. It is going to increase the wetness of storms. The warmer atmosphere can contain more water and the warmer ocean provides more water to the atmosphere. So putting it together, we can look forward to bigger and wetter storms in the future along with sea level rise.”

Again, Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette.

“It is a pretty stark future that we're looking at in coastal communities, especially like New Hanover County. You know, we've got the river on one side; we've got the ocean on the other, and we're going to get squeezed from both sides. And we're already one of the most densely populated counties in the state. We're gonna squeeze that population more with sea level rise.”