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Grappling with the impacts of a changing climate

By Jim Hawhee, APNEP Policy and Engagement Manager
December 14, 2012

Sea level rise vulnerability in the Albemarle-Pamlico region.  Map courtesy of Tom Allen, East Carolina University

The overwhelming majority (97-98%, by one estimate) of climate scientists accept the general premise that our climate is changing, in part due to human influences. Projected physical impacts of these changes include increases in the severity and frequency of hurricanes, higher average temperatures and sea-level rise. Ocean acidification, salinity changes, and shifts in the location and composition of the biological communities are also expected, each of which will impact the ecosystems of the Albemarle-Pamlico region.

In addition to more traditional environmental concerns, a changing climate may ultimately affect nearly every sector of our economy, including transportation and water infrastructure, real estate, insurance, tourism, agriculture, fisheries, public health, energy development and more. These concerns are magnified along our coast, where sea-level rise is a primary concern.

These issues were the subject of recent discussion at a meeting of APNEP’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee, or STAC. The committee is composed of nearly three dozen scientists from federal agencies, academia, and nonprofit organizations, who collectively provide scientific support to APNEP.

STAC members and invited guests covered a range of topics related to sea-level rise. An overview of the scientific basis and tools used to study sea-level rise was provided, as well as the policy implications of climate change in our region. Experts also discussed the current state of affairs in both North Carolina and Virginia. For those who wish to investigate further, a list of  STAC presentations is maintained on the APNEP website.

In APNEP’s Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan, three actions were designed to explicitly address the challenges posed by a changing climate on the Albemarle-Pamlico region. Two of these actions call for the development of improved scientific products that can support decision-making, while the last charges APNEP to engage with local communities to help them integrate climate projections into their planning processes.

Notably absent from APNEP’s approach is a call for new regulatory approaches in this area. Instead, APNEP has supported a number of scientific, engagement and planning initiatives designed to begin the process of adapting to sea level rise. In 2008 APNEP hosted a number of listening sessions throughout the APNEP region, and in 2010 the program partnered with Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions to develop strategies for addressing climate change in the Climate Ready Estuaries Blueprint.

Currently, APNEP is finishing a project that examines climate influences on wastewater infrastructure in the towns of Manteo and Columbia. The project team, composed of representatives from the towns, APNEP, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Horsely Witten Group, examined the assets and vulnerabilities of these systems and developed recommendations for improving their resiliency. The recommendations are being designed for consideration and integration into the towns’ capital improvement and budgeting processes.

While the project is not yet complete, some lessons are becoming evident. Local governments in the Albemarle-Pamlico region are increasingly aware of potential climate change impacts. However, most lack dedicated resources, time, and expertise to critically examine climate issues and adjust their planning and investment strategies accordingly. At the state level, guidance can be improved by providing a range of climate projections for local planners to consider, particularly those on time horizons of 20 to 50 years. Finally, while promising pilot efforts have been completed, most communities lack mapping products that accurately define areas of future vulnerability and significant community assets.

With relevant climate information at their disposal, local governments can integrate adaptation efforts into planned infrastructure and construction investments. Steady adjustments, made over time as part of a cohesive strategy, have the potential to significantly reduce the economic, emotional, and environmental tolls of a changing climate for the residents of the Albemarle-Pamlico region.

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