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North Carolina’s Sea Level Is Rising

And It’s Costing Over $2 Billion

The sea level off North Carolina’s coast is up to 11 inches higher than it was in 1950.1 This increase is mostly due to ice melt, and it’s causing major issues. Solutions aren’t simple due to the state’s low elevation, extensive barrier islands, and vulnerability to coastal storms. In addition to the many people that live and work in the coastal region, and vacationers that visit throughout the year, North Carolina has vast natural resources and habitats at risk, including the largest estuarine system on the U.S. Atlantic Coast.2 There are already nearly 60,000 properties at risk from frequent tidal flooding in North Carolina.3 The state is planning over $2 billion in sea level rise solutions, which include beach renourishment and improvements to reduce flooding on highways.

Sea level rise is speeding up

The sea level around Wilmington, North Carolina, has risen by 11 inches since 1950. Its speed of rise has accelerated over the last ten years and it’s now rising by over 1 inch every 2 years.1 Scientists know this because the sea level is measured every 6 minutes using equipment like satellites, floating buoys off the coast, and tidal gauges to accurately measure the local sea level as it accelerates and changes.4

Created with Highcharts 6.1.3


Causes & Complications

Why Are Sea Levels Rising?

While there are four main causes of sea level rise in North Carolina, melting ice from the North and the South Poles and the slowing of the Gulf Stream are the two largest contributors. Because the rate of ice melt has been increasing significantly since 1992,5 and the fresh water melting into the ocean has been slowing down the Gulf Stream,6 North Carolina is particularly vulnerable to an increased rate of sea level rise in the future. Click here to learn more about these causes.

How Land Sinkage Increases Sea Level Rise

Most flooding happens during the fall

King tides are unusually high tides that are created during months when the sun, moon, and earth align. The combined gravitational pull of the moon and the sun creates much higher tides, called king tides. In some places, king tides are brought on by changes in the weather and ocean patterns. In places like Wilmington, king tides are typically over a foot higher than normal.1 Add that to the 11 inches of sea level rise since 1950 and you end up with flooding even on sunny days.

Solutions aren’t simple

The coastline of North Carolina differs from other states with larger, urban or metropolitan areas, so solutions to sea level rise need to take into account the natural landscape and wildlife. Solutions in North Carolina aren’t simple, due to the state’s low elevation, extensive barrier islands, and vulnerability to coastal storms.

The social, economic, and environmental implications of sea level rise are immense, complex, and to some extent, unavoidable.

Jordan Kern, Research Scientist and Professor, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State University
Jordan Kern


What's the Future of Sea Level Rise?

In the last decade, the speed at which North Carolina’s sea level is rising has increased, and is now rising by as much as 1 inch every 2 years.1 Around Wilmington, it took about 24 years for the ocean to rise 6inches.1 Scientists forecast that in just the next 15 years, the sea level will have risen by another 6 inches.7

Scientists are not certain how fast the ocean will warm and ice will melt. They expect water levels to continue to rise faster, but are not sure just how fast. Therefore scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have made predictions based on ranges from low to high.

Below you can see the range of the NOAA and USACE high and intermediate forecasts for various locations around North Carolina.8 Currently, the USACE high forecast, seen as the darkest red line, is the most likely projection.

Created with Highcharts 6.1.3Beaufort Sea Level Rise Forecasts

Many coastal areas of North Carolina are expected to experience increased frequency and magnitude flood events, alongside an increased susceptibility to storms.

Jordan Kern, Research Scientist and Professor, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State University
Jordan Kern


Why Are Floods More Frequent?

When the ocean rises high enough, high tides cause flooding even on sunny days. Even though the sea level has only risen by 5 and a half inches inches, tidal flooding has increased by 100% in some areas of North Carolina since 2000.9

How sea level rise affects North Carolina

Flooding even when there’s no rain

Drainage systems are designed to channel excess rainwater from the streets and drain it into the sea. But with the pressure from rising sea levels and higher tides, seawater can get pushed into these pipes and spill out into the streets. This causes flooding even on days without rain.

Drain A
Drainage Under Normal Tidal Conditions
Drainage With King Tide / Sea Level Rise

Increased storm surge flooding

Unfortunately, slightly higher sea levels make hurricanes even more damaging. Just a few more inches of sea level rise allow a hurricane to push more water onto the land, even if the hurricane itself doesn’t make landfall.

Hurricane Matthew, 2016

Higher sea levels create a higher launching point for storm surge. These small changes in sea level rise are enough to turn what were 100-year storm surges into much more frequent events. In fact, in a third of 55 coastal sites studied throughout the US, 100-year storm surges will be 10-year or more frequent events by 2050.9

This means that in many coastal cities, if you bought a house with a 30-year mortgage today, by the time you paid off your mortgage you could be experiencing extreme 100-year storm surges ten times more frequently due to sea level rise alone. This does not include the added risk of more intense storms resulting from warmer water and a warmer atmosphere, which could further increase storm surge damage.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew devastated North Carolina with widespread storm surge flooding and caused $10 billion in damages.11 Without sea level rise, Hurricane Matthew’s 5.8 foot storm surge would have been lower.12

Hurricane Matthew, 2016


What's at Risk in North Carolina?

There’s a lot at risk from sea level rise and flooding in North Carolina. In addition to the many people that live and work in the coastal region of the state, and vacationers that visit throughout the year, North Carolina has vast natural resources and habitats at risk. The state possesses the largest estuarine system on the U.S. Atlantic Coast,2 with an extensive barrier island chain, and over 2,300 square miles of coastal land vulnerable to a one-meter rise in sea level.2

Homes & Cars
Homes & Cars

Storm surges or flooding can damage the underside of your car or the first level of your home.

Coastal Wetlands
Coastal Wetlands

Sea level rise can disrupt coastal wetlands, which puts important ecosystems in danger, threatens habitats, and leaves communities exposed to dangerous storm surge.


Rising seas increase the speed of beach erosion, pulling more sand from the beach into sea. Replacing the sand is possible, but expensive.

In Hatteras there are 295 residential properties already at risk from repeated tidal flooding, by 2033 that number will increase to 434 as sea levels rise. In North Topsail Beach, 356 properties at risk will turn into 684 within 15 years. In Ocracoke there are 458 properties at risk, which will become 719. And in Surf City, there are 1,283 properties at risk, which will increase to 1,923 by 2033. Click here to explore other coastal communities in North Carolina that are at risk at FloodiQ.com.

North Carolina is spending over $2 billion

Some cities have sufficient resources to deal with this problem while others do not. North Carolina will need solutions at the individual, local, state, and federal levels to protect its coastal communities.

State of North Carolina
State of North Carolina

North Carolina has identified over $300 million in long term improvements to reduce flooding on Highway 12 in Buxton, Hatteras, and Ocracoke.13

Surf City & Topsail Beach
Surf City & Topsail Beach

Surf City and Topsail Beach have a 50-year beach renourishment plant that would cost $353 million. The benefits of this project will double to $700 million with sea level rise.14

Outer Banks
Outer Banks

The cost of beach nourishment for just 14 miles of beach in the Outer Banks would be $1.6 billion over 50 years.15

What can you do?

Individuals, mayors, legislators, governors, and Congress can work together to build protections before flooding, to build back stronger after flooding, and to create plans that future-proof our communities. Click here to see what solutions can help protect your home or what your community can do.