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WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

As sea level rise accelerates, Carolinas' coast is at risk

021722 1 foot sea level rise NOAA.jpg
NOAA
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NOAA's Sea Level Rise Viewer shows what a 1-foot rise in sea level would mean for the North Carolina coast. A new report says sea level could rise that much by 2050.

A new report by federal climate scientists says sea level rise is accelerating, posing a more immediate threat to coastal areas of the Carolinas and nationwide than previously thought.

The report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, projects ocean levels along the U.S. coast will rise an average of 10 to 12 inches by 2050. That's as much as the total increase over the past 100 years, according to NOAA. Severe floods that now happen every four or five years will happen four to five times a year.

"By 2050, moderate flooding, flooding that typically damages property and commerce, is expected to occur 10 times as often as it does today," Nicole LeBoeuf, director of NOAA's National Ocean Service, said in a briefing Tuesday.

In North Carolina, rising sea levels could affect beaches and tourism, businesses, low-lying and coastal neighborhoods and commerce, such as the ports at Wilmington and Charleston. It also could mean flooded coastal marshlands.

Coastal geologist Rob Young of Western Carolina University said more frequent damaging floods are expected along the coast and rivers, not just during storms but also at high tide.

"It's going to increase the rate of shoreline erosion. It's going to increase the rate at which our beach nourishment projects disappear. And it's going to increase the amount of chronic nuisance flooding that we experience in places like downtown Wilmington, and up and down the East Coast," said Young, who directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.

Flooding amid higher sea levels will damage coastal properties and businesses as well as areas of the coastal plain, Young said. Farms will be inundated and septic systems will fail, bringing public health concerns.

"This extends well inland, especially in the northern coast. Behind the northern Outer Banks there's a big, flat, low lying Coastal Plain. And in all of these areas adjacent to the coast, the water table is going to come up underneath us as sea level continues to rise," Young said.

NOAA said sea level rise could be highest along the Gulf and East Coasts.

Coastal communities will face significant consequences if they don't start preparing now, NOAA said. "Without additional risk-reduction measures, U.S. coastal infrastructure, communities, and ecosystems will face significant consequences," the report says.

"This data can inform coastal communities and businesses about current and future vulnerabilities in the face of climate change. This information can help those communities make smart decisions, keep people and property safe over the long run," NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad said in a briefing Tuesday.

White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy said in a statement: “This new data on sea rise is the latest reconfirmation that our climate crisis ⁠— as the president has said ⁠— is blinking ‘code red.' We must redouble our efforts to cut the greenhouse gases that cause climate change while, at the same time, help our coastal communities become more resilient in the face of rising seas.”

Federal climate officials will use the latest report as they put together the Fifth National Climate Assessment, which is due out in 2023.

The report "Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States" was published Tuesday.

See NOAA's announcement at NOAA.gov

You can get a glimpse of what sea level rise means by using NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer at https://coast.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/tools/slr.html.
A version of this report originally appeared in WFAE's weekly climate newsletter on Thursday. Don't miss an issue - subscribe at https://www.wfae.org/climate-newsletter-signup

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.