North Carolina may see up to about four and a half feet of sea level rise between 2000 and 2100, which, combined with increased flooding and frequency of major storms, will put thousands of lives at risk. Currently, about 122,000 people are at risk of coastal flooding in the state. This number is expected to increase to 166,000 people by the year 2050 due to sea level rise. North Carolina is vulnerable to especially high sea level rise due to having a low elevation, dynamic coastline. However, the state government is not stepping up to prepare to adapt to this impending danger and has even slowed the process with the passage of a law that restricts climate change science. It is up to local governments, especially of coastal communities, to begin planning processes now to prepare to adapt to sea level rise in lieu of state leadership.
North Carolina’s coast is low elevation and includes the barrier islands, also called the Outer Banks, which respond rapidly to changes in coastal dynamics. Coastal counties should be prepared for these barrier islands to move drastically in response to sea level rise and storms, which are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change. Most recently, Hurricane Dorian alone carved out 54 new inlets into the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which is only 56 miles of North Carolina’s approximately 3,375 mile coast. Areas such as this that form inlets readily, “have the potential to erode catastrophically to the point of barrier island collapse; that is, the erosion below sea level of long segments of the barriers.” Sea level rise will exacerbate these effects, causing extensive change to the Outer Banks. This is also expected to impact the Inner Banks, with Dr. Stanley Riggs and colleagues warning that counties just inland of current coastal counties should be prepared to become the new coastal counties.
Major losses to the Inner and Outer Banks are a particularly concerning threat for North Carolina because the coastal community is relatively low-income compared to the rest of the state and thus ill-equipped to adapt to sea level rise. A study conducted for the National Commission on Energy Policy on the impacts of climate change on coastal resources chose North Carolina instead of any other coastal US state for their case study because of this economic vulnerability. These low-income coastal communities are dependent on real estate and tourism for their economies, which are both expected to be severely impacted by sea level rise. This study found the impacts by 2080 to be a $3.2 billion loss in property value and a $3.5 billion loss in recreation.
Unfortunately, the state of North Carolina has turned a blind eye to much of this science with the passage of H.R. 819 in 2012. This law has restricted the use of science to influence state policies. It states that the Coastal Resources Commission is the only state agency with authority to define sea level rise rates to influence regulations. This limits the power to affect state regulations regarding sea level rise to a commission of 13 members that are appointed by the Governor, the Speaker of the House, and the Senate President Pro Tempore. This may severely limit the science used based on the agenda of the Governor and these other state leaders who have the power to control this commission.
The creation of H.R. 819 was sparked by a 2010 report that stated that sea level could rise up to 39 inches by 2100, which led real estate developers to worry that this would spur the creation of policies that harmed their business. Supporters of the bill claimed it was necessary to make sure the science that was being used was legitimate, but also made inaccurate statements denying sea level rise. It is clear the this law was developed to restrict climate change science. It is crucial that this law be rescinded to allow the formulation of well-informed policies to protect this vulnerable state and prepare for the destruction headed for its coast.
Until this happens, it is up to the coastal counties of North Carolina to take their own action to protect their citizens. Fortunately, H.R 819 does not affect local governments, so their ability to use science regarding sea level rise to inform policies is not restricted. One example of a local government that has already taken initiative is the Town of Nags Head, which adopted a comprehensive plan to address resiliency and hazard mitigation in 2017.
Nags Head’s plan assesses the vulnerability of the town to various risks, including both natural and man-made disasters. It recognizes the many effects of sea level rise, highlighting the importance of preparing not only for flooding, but also for coastline erosion, increased storm surge, and impacts on aquifers and marshes. The plan includes a high level of management and monitoring to prepare communities. This will be carried out through detailed actions such as, “identify[ing] businesses and material storage areas where significant amounts of toxic or hazardous products are stored which would be subject to flooding,” and developing a more in-depth analysis of the town’s vulnerability to sea level rise that calls for the use of future scenarios. However, many of the actions are to conduct more research or develop programs and plans, which shows that there is much work Nags Head has to do to strengthen its resiliency.
It is imperative that other coastal towns and counties follow the lead of Nags Head with a sense of urgency to be prepared in time for the dangers of sea level rise that are expected to devastate these communities.
 Robert E. Kopp et al., “Past and Future Sea-Level Rise along the Coast of North Carolina, USA,” Climatic Change 132, no. 4 (June 27, 2015): 693–707, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-015-1451-x.
 “North Carolina’s Climate Threats,” States at Risk, accessed April 1, 2020, http://statesatrisk.org/north-carolina/all.
 Will McDow, “North Carolina Must Prepare for Sea Level Rise Now,” Environmental Defense Fund, September 26, 2019, http://blogs.edf.org/growingreturns/2019/09/26/north-carolina-prepare-sea-level-rise/.
 David J Mallinson et al., “Past, Present and Future Inlets of the Outer Banks Barrier Islands, North Carolina,” December 2008, 43.
 Stanley R. Riggs et al., Battle for North Carolina’s Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis, and Vision for the Future (Chapel Hill, UNITED STATES: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/duke/detail.action?docID=797771.
 Chris Dumas and John Whitehead, “Measuring the Impacts of Climate Change on North Carolina Coastal Resources,” March 15, 2007, http://www.conservation.nc.gov/web/cm/coastal-resources-commission.
 General Assembly of North Carolina, An Act to Study and Modify Certain Coastal Management Policies, HR 819, Session 2011, https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:uPAMcfayI5AJ:https://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2011/Bills/House/PDF/H819v6.pdf%20&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&fbclid=IwAR37QF07Fqs8imzgn-oayLtOWP-sX6cbYllldVE4aEfHryX-pOESPiVeKl4.
 Chris Dumas and John Whitehead, “Measuring the Impacts of Climate Change on North Carolina Coastal Resources.”
 John Schwartz and Richard Fausset, “North Carolina, Warned of Rising Seas, Chose to Favor Development,” The New York Times, September 12, 2018, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/us/north-carolina-coast-hurricane.html.
 An Act to Study and Modify Certain Coastal Management Policies.
 “Town of Nags Head Comprehensive Plan,” July 5, 2017, https://nagsheadnc.gov/DocumentCenter/View/438/Comprehensive-Plan-on-Hazard-Mitigation-Vulnerability–Sea-Level-Rise-PDF.
 “Town of Nags Head Comprehensive Plan.”