Carolina Coast Found Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise
By Erica Plouffe Lazure
A new report released June 20 finds that North Carolina’s coastline will continue to experience significant loss in land area, property and recreational value in the next 30 to 75 years due to projected changes in climate, leading North Carolina researchers announced.
The findings appear in the report “Measuring the Impacts of Climate Change on North Carolina Coastal Resources,” which assesses the impact of rising sea levels on property values, recreation and quality of life, and was conducted by researchers from Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, University of North Carolina Wilmington and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The study finds that:
• North Carolina’s coastal topography makes it especially vulnerable to sea level rise and hurricanes—both economically and ecologically.
• A one- to three-foot rise in sea level along four North Carolina coastal counties could mean billions of dollars in private property losses over the next 75 years.
• Recreational fishing and beach trips also are vulnerable to increased erosion from sea level rise and hurricanes.
• Business interruption losses from hurricanes could increase by as much as $157 million per storm event by 2080.
The study surveyed the counties of New Hanover, Dare, Carteret and Bertie. These four counties represent a cross-section of the North Carolina coastline in geographical distribution and economic development, according to the study. Researchers found that North Carolina’s coast is highly vulnerable to climate change, and looked at the economic impact global warming could have on its resources. They also considered how sea level rise would affect damage to property values, coastal recreation and tourism.
According to current research, sea levels globally are expected to rise significantly during the next century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that changes in the earth’s climate could raise global sea levels by one to more than two feet over the next 25 to 75 years.
The researchers used the IPCC projections, along with county tax, recreation and travel, and fishing data to determine their findings.
Okmyung "Paul" Bin
John Whitehead, a professor of economics at Appalachian State University, was lead author. Other contributors were Okmyung “Paul” Bin from East Carolina University’s Department of Economics and Chris Dumas from the Department of Economics and Finance at UNC Wilmington. Ben Poulter, formerly of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and now with the Department of Global Change and Natural Systems at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, assisted with computer modeling of the non-economic data used to generate the report. Whitehead looked at the impact that loss of beach width would have on fishing and recreational trips.
“Anglers who like to catch saltwater fish but don’t own boats or have enough money for a charter boat rental have two options: They can fish off a pier or fish from the beach,” Whitehead said. “If the beach disappears, anglers can switch to the piers, which may become crowded and less enjoyable. People traveling to the beach for recreation won’t have a similar option.”
By the year 2080, 14 of the 17 recreational swimming beaches in southern North Carolina could, without adaptation, erode all the way to the road, eliminating the possibility for beach recreation in those areas.
As the beach diminishes, Whitehead said, people would spend less time and money at the coast as a result of the lost recreational opportunities. Using economic models, he estimated the lost economic value for southern North Carolina beaches would total $3.9 billion over the next 75 years.
ECU’s Okmyung “Paul” Bin looked at the impact of sea level rise on property value. He found that losses of $6.9 billion could occur in just four North Carolina coastal counties during the next 75 years, without adaptation, with the most significant losses occurring in the vulnerable northern coastal counties.
“The amount of developed property along the North Carolina coastline has steadily increased over the last several decades due to a strong preference for coastal locations,” Bin said.
“The number of building permits in Carolina Beach during the last four years alone exceeds the number of permits issued over the previous 20 years, and the average selling price for residential properties in Wrightsville Beach has increased more than 200 percent since 2001. This growth, coupled with soaring property values in North Carolina, has created greater vulnerability to rising sea levels.”
Depending on the sea level rise scenarios over the next 75 years, Bin found that the residential property value at risk in Dare County could range from $242 million to $2.7 billion, and the property value at risk in Carteret County would be between $26 million and $291 million.
More protected New Hanover and Bertie counties would likely have smaller impacts. New Hanover County could have residential property value at risk between $37 million and $212 million, and Bertie County’s risk could range from $2 million to $7 million in property value.
“These estimates focus on the loss of property value from permanent inundation,” Bin said. “Temporary inundation caused by high tides and storms occurs much sooner in time than permanent flooding, and the costs associated with it can be quite large relative to those associated with permanent flooding.”
Increased storm severity would also impact the agriculture, forestry, commercial fisheries and general business sectors in these counties. UNC - Wilmington economist Chris Dumas estimated that business interruption losses in New Hanover, Dare, Carteret and Bertie counties associated with an increase in Category 3 hurricanes would rise by $34 million per storm event by 2030, and by $157 million per storm event by 2080.
Even if there were no increases in hurricane frequency through 2080, cumulative losses in the four counties could still exceed $1.4 billion when regional economic growth is considered.
“Business interruption losses could be even larger if storm frequency increases, whether or not storm severity intensifies,” Dumas said. “Although current climate models could not predict storm frequency changes, if climate change were to cause an increase in storm frequency, we would expect more frequent flooding, evacuations, downed power lines – and larger economic impacts.” In addition to business interruption, increasing storm intensity would also have serious impacts on agriculture and forestry. Agricultural damage from hurricanes currently runs at about $50 million for a Category 1 hurricane, about $200 million for a Category 2 storm, and about $800 million for a Category 3.
Any escalation of hurricane activity would significantly increase the amount of agricultural damage. Similarly, timber damage assessments indicate that an increase in hurricane severity from Category 2 to Category 3 can raise timber losses by about $900 million. Hurricane Fran, a Category 3 storm that made landfall in September 1996, damaged 44 percent of the commercial forest land along the northern coastal plan, an estimated $1.39 billion in lost timber.
|Projected erosion of N.C. beaches is listed above, in comparison to 2004 figures. By 2080, 14 of the 17 recreational swimming beaches listed are projected to have eroded all the way to the road, making beach recreation impossible. (Contributed graphic)
Although work is underway at the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries to assess the impacts of hurricanes on North Carolina fisheries, it is still a work in progress. Results from limited case studies indicate that commercial fisheries suffer economic losses primarily in the form of damaged fishing gear and reduction in the number of safe fishing days. In addition, populations of some fish species may fall following hurricanes, further reducing fishing profitability.
Climate change would likely increase these losses if storm severity or frequency escalates.
“Coastal North Carolina has been identified as one of the United States’ most vulnerable regions to climate change,” Poulter said.
“More than 2,000 square miles of North Carolina’s coastal ecosystems and urban areas are below one-meter elevation and within the range of projected sea level rise from climate change for the year 2100. This study demonstrates that, as climate change contributes to inundation, increased shoreline erosion and higher hurricane intensity, coastal economies will experience significant economic losses in the absence of mitigation and local adaptation.”
Whitehead hopes the study will be used by policy makers to better understand the benefits of implementing climate change policy.
“Usually, decision makers focus on one of two things: the benefits of a policy or the costs of a policy,” Whitehead said. “Right now, it seems that people are focusing on the costs of addressing climate change. The benefits of implementing climate change policy would occur further down the road, which makes them easier to ignore or postpone. We hope this study will help fill in some of the gaps in knowledge about this issue.”
The full study is available at http://econ.appstate.edu/climate. The study was funded through a grant from the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan, non-profit group of energy experts.