The Mast-Head: Hold Back the Sea

The sea is coming and long-term preparations must be made

   The North Carolina Legislature earned no small degree of derision recently in attempting to tell scientists there how to predict sea level rise. A bill pending in the Southern state would constrain how its coastal commission calculates the rate of increase, requiring that numbers be based on trends only since 1900. This would leave out exponential shifts that may follow unforeseen changes, such as accelerated melting of the polar ice caps.
    In coastal parts of that state, officials will have to skirt the new law to plan for what current research says could be sea level rise in excess of the limit. As on Long Island, much of North Carolina’s coastline is highly vulnerable to inundation. Policy makers will have to take that into account, the state capital be damned.
    That some municipalities there have actually passed resolutions prohibiting work on meeting the challenges of the predicted inundation is beyond belief. Of course, that may be a step or two better than what has happened here, at least in the Town of East Hampton, where officials have sidestepped the issue for years and acted as if it will all go away.
    These are big problems, and you can understand why elected officials, very few of whom have a background in the sciences, are not equipped to deal with them. Still, the best available evidence shows that the sea is coming and long-term preparations must be made.
    Where I live, on the bay in Amagansett, the beach has moved landward at the rate of about a foot a year for almost 50 years. The erosion is irregular; some years nothing much happens. Then, in one night, 12 or more feet can be sheared off the low bluffs. And, guess what? It never comes back.
    Back in the early 1960s, when my parents chose the site for the house, they put it as far back as they could, buying us time. Neighbors were not so cautious, and after the last bad northeaster, several of their foundations were battered by the waves.
    As lawmakers dither, somewhere King Canute must be smiling. He was the Norse leader whose courtesans told him he was so powerful that he could hold back the tide. Legend has it that to prove them wrong, he had his throne carried to the water’s edge, and, as the sea rose, he pointed out the hubris of his sycophants.
    Canute was making the point that no man, not even a great leader, could force heaven and earth to bend to his will. North Carolina lawmakers, it seems, have not yet learned this lesson.