THEGREENGROK

Sea Level Rise, Melting Glaciers, and North Carolina Law

by Bill Chameides | June 7th, 2012
posted by Wendy Graber (Researcher)

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Last August, Hurricane Irene washed out several sections of Hwy 12 along North Carolina's Outer Banks. Accelerated sea level rise will make the North Carolina coast more vulnerable and so the state legislators are fixing to stop it. (NCDOT)
Last August, Hurricane Irene washed out several sections of Hwy 12 along North Carolina's Outer Banks. Accelerated sea level rise will make the North Carolina coast more vulnerable and so the state legislators are fixing to stop it. (NCDOT)

North Carolina legislators are in danger of being drowned by a rising sea of scorn.

The State of North Carolina has got a good deal of attention of late for its apparent desire to mandate how much sea level will rise along its picturesque coast. Some in the state legislature may be feeling a good deal of self-satisfaction for concocting this little gambit, perhaps even high fiving each other and chanting things like “we don’t need no stinking climate scientists.” A lot of others are having a pretty healthy chortle at North Carolina’s expense. Even the Brits have gotten into it. For an especially good laugh check out this segment from Stephen Colbert.

It’s not often that a bill being considered in a state legislature makes the national news. But every once in a while one is so egregious you can’t help but shake your head. And North Carolina’s sea level bill is most definitely one of those.

Perhaps recognizing that laughing is good for people’s health and wanting to do their civic duty or perhaps out of a sincere belief that politicians understand climate better than scientists, North Carolina may move one step closer to making this a reality. The bill in question [pdf] described as Proposed Senate Committee Substitute H819-CSLH-38 [v.24] – “An Act to Study and Modify Certain Coastal Management Policies” came before the North Carolina Senate Committee on Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources this morning.

Relevant passages in the proposed bill include:

“The General Assembly does not intend to mandate the development of sea-level rise policy or rates of sea-level rise. The Coastal Resources Commission, in conjunction with the Division of Coastal Management, shall have the authority to define sea-level rise and develop rates of sea-level rise for the State.”

That sounds good, but then there’s this section:

“The Coastal Resources Commission shall be the only State agency authorized to define rates of sea-level rise for regulatory purposes and, if developed, shall do so in conjunction with the Division of Coastal Management…These rates shall be determined using statistically significant, peer-reviewed historical data generated using generally accepted scientific and statistical techniques. Historic rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated to estimate future rates of rise [emphasis added] but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise unless such rates are from statistically significant, peer-reviewed data and are consistent with historic trends.”

The language is a bit murky, but seems to giveth and taketh away when it comes to accelerated rates: you can use them, but only if they are consistent with historic trends – sort of an oxymoron in the case of a rate that is accelerating.

So what’s wrong with this legislation? Here are a few paragraphs my colleague Prasad Kasibhatla and I penned for Rob Jackson, a Nicholas School professor who went to Raleigh to testify at the hearing:

  • The specific language regarding ‘accelerated rates of sea-level rising’ is confusing. However any legislative restriction on the use of accelerating rates of sea-level rise has no scientific basis. It is clear from the data that rates of sea level rise have accelerated over the past century and the reasons for that are largely understood – increasing ocean temperatures and glacial melt.
  • From a climate science perspective, it is highly likely that the underlying drivers of sea-level rise (increasing ocean temperatures and glacial melt) will continue to operate in the coming decades.
  • The March 2010 North Carolina Sea-Level Rise Assessment Report [pdf] prepared by the North Carolina Coastal Resource Commission’s Science Panel on Coastal Hazards presents a scientifically rigorous assessment of future sea-level rise for coastal North Carolina.
  • To mandate the use of historical rates of sea-level rise without acceleration is actually inconsistent with the historical record and with the scientific understanding of underlying drivers that has been developed from this historical record.

Surprise, surprise, the bill passed out of committee this morning.  You can watch here. Incredibly, while the world waits with bated breath to see how much sea level rise the NC Senate will decide is lawfully allowable, the scientific community continues its work on sea level rise as if the legislation is irrelevant.

In point of fact, two papers on Greenland’s recent contribution to sea level rise were published in the last month.

Glacial Retreat Captured on Old Film

Anders Bjork of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues publishing in Nature Geoscience used old aerial photographs of glaciers in the southeast of Greenland from the 1930s to infer and compare rates of glacial retreat at six discreet intervals from 1933 to 2010. The 1930’s are of interest because that was also a period of rapid atmospheric warming in Greenland, although sea surface temperatures are much higher now. The authors found that while glaciers during the 1930s also had elevated rates of retreat they weren’t as large as current rates of retreat.  The average rate during the 1930s was about 25 meters per year, whereas the average rate now is about 55 meters per year. Also back in the 1930s land terminating glaciers retreated faster, but now ice sheet and marine terminating glaciers are retreating much faster—a likely reflection of the current increase in both air and ocean temperatures.

Misreporting climate science is fairly common these days. So I guess we should not be surprised by misleading coverage of the Bjork et al study that appeared in The Register and elsewhere reporting that “photos taken in the 1930s by Danish explorers “show glaciers in Greenland retreating faster than they are today, according to researchers.””

Satellites Also Follow Glacial Retreat

Twila Moon of the University of Washington and colleagues publishing in Science reported on their analysis of satel
lite data measuring the velocity of Greenland’s outlet glaciers (those that drain the ice sheet to the sea) over the past decade.  The bottom line was encouraging.  While outlet glaciers in some areas are fast moving and continue to accelerate, other regions are characterized by glaciers with slower rates of acceleration or even relatively steady flows. The picture that emerges is that flow is variable across Greenland and while velocities are accelerating overall, the rate of acceleration slowed over the decade.  Slowed to the point that it is below what was in line with sea level rise scenarios through 2100.  They conclude that “sea level rise associated with Greenland glacier dynamics remains well below the low-end scenario* … at present.”

Of course this latter result will need to remain in limbo until it is taken up by the North Carolina legislature.

_____________

End Note

Note this does not refer to total sea level rise, nor is it the sum of sea level rise expected from Greenland.  It is a projection of just that portion of sea level rise from Greenland’s glaciers.

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9 Comments

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  1. Jeff Easley
    Jun 14, 2012

    I have to laugh at the agenda driven data picking that goes on in the modern environmental movement. Those “Scientist” who so passionately but arrogantly invoke “Man Caused” environmental disasters are either a: not smart enough to realize they are pawns in the wealth redistribution policies of the modern environmental movement or b: so arrogant as to believe the rest of us are not able to see their agenda in their “findings”. This Green Elitists are nothing more than socialists who dream of a utopian society where man can control everything about his environment if only they can spend everybody else’s money to do it.

  2. Barbara Lutz Hart
    Jun 13, 2012

    A truly conservative approach to this issue would be to err on the side of caution (and shape guidelines based on the “worst case scenario”). It is unfortunate that that does not seem to be the guiding principle here. I predict that at some point in the future, the coastal communities will turn to the taxpayers in the rest of the state, asking for our help in “holding back the water”. It is too bad that poor decision-making today (driven by profits for some) will be visited upon the future taxpayers of North Carolina, and the nation. Those who are taking risks (in order to profit), will expect someone to bail them out if things go bad. This mentality is at the core of many of the problems this country is experiencing today.

  3. Bill Price
    Jun 9, 2012

    Joking that a NC Law intends to stop Sea Level from rising or accelerating is Real Funny. If SLR is or will accelerate rapidly, the General Assembly want’s actual proof, instead of using an Ouija Board to predict acceleration of Sea Level Rise. Scientists, said 18″ SLR/ 100 y has occurred, and 1 foot SLR = 2 Miles inundation, but scientists and educational institution have refused to answer questions, declined to do the studies, and refused to participate in an Open Public Forum. IF a comparative study showing the 4 miles inundation of NC Tidelands ( as predicted by Dr. Pilky) has been done, it should be easy to post the pages for all to see. Bill Price PKS

    • Bill Chameides
      Jul 6, 2012

      Bill Price: Actually what is even “funnier” is the North Carolina General Assembly thinking they should be the arbiters of what is scientifically correct and what it not.

  4. Dave Burton
    Jun 8, 2012

    275 words is insufficient to correct the errors in this article, so please see this page for my response: http://tinyurl.com/c64huub

    • Bill Chameides
      Jun 11, 2012

      Dave: Fifteen words are too many to rebut all the errors–factual or implied–in your comment.

      • Dave Burton
        Jun 11, 2012

        Bill: That’s not quite right, because my comment wasn’t quite error-free. I did find (and fix) one small error. I originally wrote: “Yet the CRC Science Panel’s 2010 Report (which recommended a 39 inch SLR projection) used just 26 years of data from a tide gauge at Duck, NC that is severely affected by land subsidence, even through there was an excellent 75 year record available for Wilmington, the only GLOSS-LTT tide gauge in NC.” http://tinyurl.com/c64huub That’s inaccurate. The CRC Science Panel’s deeply-flawed Report actually used only 24 years of the data from the tide gauge at Duck, not 26 years.

    • WTH
      Jun 11, 2012

      Dave, I took a glance at you link and I saw you call yourself an “IPCC AR5 WG1 Expert Reviewer”. The thing is ANYONE can be an “IPCC reviewer” – all you have to do is just fill out the forms, they send you the drafts, and you can submit comments -ANYONE can do it. The only people who call themselves “expert” reviewers are those that try to pass themselves off as credible on the subject (when often times they are not). What a joke.

      • Dave Burton
        Jun 12, 2012

        This is what the IPCC says: “This registration process has been established by the WGI Bureau to facilitate an objective, open and transparent expert review. The WGI Expert Review follows the IPCC Procedures. The WGI Expert Review seeks wide participation of experts and aims for a range of views, expertise, and geographical balance. The WGI Bureau therefore invites all experts with expertise and/or publications in the specific areas covered by the WGI Report to assist in the IPCC assessment process by registering to review the chapter(s) of the WGI AR5 First Order Draft for which he/she is an expert. Prospective Expert Reviewers are asked to provide information on their scientific and technical expertise…” I really have no way of knowing who they accept and who they reject as Expert Reviewers, but they certainly CLAIM to restrict it to people with relevant expertise. Are you saying that they’re lying? Do you have evidence of that?

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