Wright Brothers soared over the Outer Banks. Their memorial may end up underwater.

Wright Brothers soared over the Outer Banks. Their memorial may end up underwater.
(Source: pixabay)

OUTER BANKS, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - Parks on North Carolina's Outer Banks will see the greatest amount of sea level rise among national parks over the next century, says a federal report that initially deleted references to human-caused climate change as the cause.

By 2100, the shoreline at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills may see the greatest sea level rise among parks in the Southeast - up to 32 inches - says the report by the University of Colorado and the National Park Service.

The Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores on the Outer Banks are projected to rise by up to 31 and 30 inches, respectively, putting large parts of those parks underwater.

The Southeast has historically also experienced the highest intensity of storms, the report says, and higher sea levels will exacerbate the damage they cause. Parks in the region are expected to see the highest storm surges.

The report produced projections of sea level change and storm surges at 118 coastal national parks, changes it attributed to "anthropogenic climate change and other factors." It analyzed data from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under four different projections of future greenhouse gas emissions, which are linked to climate change.

"Sea level change and storm surge pose considerable risks to infrastructure, archeological sites, lighthouses, forts, and other historic structures in coastal units of the national park system," the report says.

The Wright Brothers memorial, for instance, could be nearly completely flooded if a Category 2 or stronger hurricane strikes following sea-level rise.

The report includes ranges of projected sea level rise, from the minimum to maximum rise expected under different greenhouse gas emissions.

For Cape Hatteras National Seashore, that range by 2100 is 21 inches to 31 inches. For Cape Lookout National Seashore, it's 21 inches to 30 inches and for the Wright Brothers National Memorial 21 inches to 32 inches.

The expansion of warming ocean water and melting ice sheets are driving increases in sea level, but the degree of rise varies by location. In some areas, sinking land makes sea levels rise more pronounced than in others.

The East Coast is already undergoing "sunny day flooding" during the highest tides of the year, a phenomenon that scientists had not expected to see for decades. Wilmington saw 84 days of that flooding in 2016, and Charleston 50 days.

A Union of Concerned Scientists study last year predicted that 13 communities on the mainland side of Pamlico Sound would be "chronically inundated" by 2035. Under its worst scenarios, the Outer Banks communities of Nags Head and Hatteras would suffer most.

But drafts of the National Park Service report, obtained earlier this year by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, found that the park service deleted any mention of human-caused climate change. The final report issued Friday restored those references.

"The fight probably destroyed my career with the (National Park Service) but it will be worth it if we can uphold the truth and ensure that scientific integrity of other scientists won't be challenged so easily in the future," said the University of Colorado's Maria Caffrey, the study's lead author, who had resisted the editing.