NAGS HEAD, N.C. — The dangers of climate change were revealed to Willo Kelly in a government conference room in the summer of 2011. By the end of the century, state officials said, the ocean would be 39 inches higher, and her Outer Banks home would be swamped.
The state had detailed maps to illustrate this claim and was developing a website where people could check by street address to see if their property was doomed. There was no talk of salvation, no plan to hold back the tide. The 39-inch forecast was “a death sentence,” Ms. Kelly said, “for ever trying to sell your house.”
So Ms. Kelly, a lobbyist for Outer Banks homebuilders and Realtors, resolved to prove the forecast wrong. And thus began one of the nation’s most notorious battles over climate change.
Coastal residents joined forces with climate skeptics to attack the science of global warming and persuade North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature to deep-six the 39-inch projection, which had been advanced under the outgoing Democratic governor. Now, the state is working on a new forecast that will look only 30 years out and therefore show the seas rising by no more than 8 inches.
Environmentalists are appalled, and North Carolina has been lampooned as a hotbed of greedy developers trying to “outlaw” the rising tide. But some climate-change experts are sympathetic, calling the rebellion an understandable reaction to sea-level forecasts rapidly becoming both widely available and alarmingly precise.
“The main problem they have is fear,” said Duke University marine policy professor Michael Orbach, who has met with coastal leaders. “They realize this is going to have a huge impact on the coastal economy and coastal development interests. And, at this point, we don’t actually know what we’re going to do about it.”
Cities such as Norfolk, Va., and Miami have embraced the data, identifying inundation zones as a first step toward planning — and seeking federal funds for — sea walls, floodgates and other forms of protection. On lonelier stretches of the U.S. shoreline, however, government aid seems less likely than interference and abandonment, and the forecasts are sparking deep anxiety about the future.
In the Carolinas and Southampton, N.Y., isolated enclaves of ultra-rich shore-front owners have moved preemptively to build private bulkheads to protect their homes from the rising sea. But such fortifications are not an option on the Outer Banks, a string of narrow barrier islands dotted with busy beach towns, isolated fishing villages and stretches of wild seashore. In spots, the islands are barely 100 yards wide.
“We don’t have any tools in our toolbox other than retreat,” Ms. Kelly said one recent morning in a sunny Manteo cafe that would be underwater if the sea were 39 inches higher. “In the backs of their minds, what everyone is thinking is that they just want people off the Outer Banks.”
Yet long before that would happen, Ms. Kelly worries that codifying the 39-inch forecast would crush the local economy, which relies entirely on tourism and construction, sale and rental of family beach houses.
In Dare County alone, the islands’ largest jurisdiction, the state identified more than 8,500 structures, with an assessed value of nearly $1.4 billion, that would be flooded if tides were 39 inches higher. Even at an 8-inch forecast, 414 Dare County properties worth $70 million would be marked for inundation.
If the state ever activates the website that lets potential investors search by address, Ms. Kelly said, “all of a sudden, those properties would be worthless.”
Nationwide, $700 billion of coastal property could be below mean sea level by the end of the century — and an additional $730 billion could be at risk at high tide — without new policies to forestall climate change, according to a new report by the Risky Business Project, a high-powered group of financial and political figures who were set to meet Wednesday with senior Obama administration officials.
So far, locals say there is no sign that the Outer Banks housing market is suffering. Nags Head’s town manager, Cliff Ogburn, said the town is doing a booming business in building permits, and that “occupancy is as high as it’s ever been,” having rebounded from the dark days before 2011.
That is when Nags Head and Dare County spent $36 million to repair severe erosion on 10 miles of beachfront, where encroaching waves had claimed nearly a dozen houses and the seaside swimming pool at the Nags Head Comfort Inn.
Now, the beach looks great, the tourists are back, and Duck, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills are talking to the county about beach nourishment projects of their own.
“We lose beach because the water is rising equal to the thickness of two nickels every year,” Dare County manger Bobby Outten said on a tour of the restored shoreline. “Some call it sea-level rise, but from our perspective, it’s erosion, and we’ve been living with it forever.”
The arrival of man-made beaches on the Outer Banks has drawn the disapproval of some environmentalists. For generations, the islands have moved with the waves, and human settlements have moved with them. These days, however, the islands are so heavily developed, houses threatened by the surf often have nowhere to go.
Beach nourishment offers a temporary solution. But as the sea rises, it “ceases to be cost effective, and it becomes obvious that something else has to happen,” said erosion specialist Spencer Rogers, with North Carolina Sea Grant, a research consortium at North Carolina State University. “If things get to the worst extent, then we’re going to be abandoning places,” he said. “There won’t be any option.”
Mr. Outten acknowledges that nourishment is a temporary fix, but he argues that it protects property, beautifies the shoreline and keeps the local economy humming. Besides, he said, it’s the only option he’s got.
“What is it you would ask us to do differently right now? Tell people to move away? Preaching abandonment is absurd,” Mr. Outten said. “People would go in the closet and get the guns out.”
That’s nearly what happened when local officials caught wind of the 39-inch forecast.
The North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission, which regulates its 20 coastal counties’ land use, had asked its science panel to assess vulnerability to sea-level rise, then becoming a hot topic nationally. In 2010, the panel reviewed the scientific literature and concluded that seas along North Carolina’s coast could rise from 15 inches to 55 inches over the coming century, a forecast in line with federal agencies’ and other states’ projections. But the panel went further. For planning purposes, it said, the state should figure on 39 inches by 2100.
So the commission drafted a policy declaring sea-level rise “a pervasive and persistent hazard” and ordering coastal counties to use the 39-inch forecast for private development and public infrastructure projects.
If adopted, the policy would have made North Carolina the first state to issue such a precise forecast for sea-level rise, said Skip Stiles, who tracks state climate-change actions for Virginia-based Wetlands Watch.
Bob Emory, then the coastal commission’s chairman, said members “had no idea we were opening up a can of worms.”
In 2012, the General Assembly agreed that the state was moving too fast. Lawmakers set aside the 39-inch forecast and ordered the commission to draft new projections that take into account dissenting views on sea-level rise and its causes.
The state’s new Republican governor appointed a new coastal commission chairman, Frank Gorham, an oil and gas man who announced this spring that the new forecast would be limited to 30 years. With the 100-year forecast, “we just lost credibility,” Mr. Gorham said. “If you have a 30-year period, people will take it more seriously.”