A thousand years ago, when national boundaries were a bit different, there was a wise king who ruled both sides of the North Sea, including what today is occupied by Denmark, Norway, England and Scotland. He was well liked, had performed well in a number of wars, and also conducted himself gracefully in most kingly matters.
The great men and military officers heaped praise on King Canute. "You are the greatest man that ever lived," one would say. Another would say, "Oh king, there can never be another man so mighty as you."
The king, however, was a wise man with good sense, and he grew very tired of hearing such foolish words. One day he was hanging out at the beach surrounded by his officers. They were praising him, as they were in the habit of doing, and he thought it might be a good opportunity to teach them a lesson. So he requested that they set his chair on the sand close to the edge of the water.
"Am I the greatest man in the world?" he asked.
"There is no one as mighty as you," they cried out.
"Do all things obey me?" he asked.
"Great Canute, there is nothing that dares to disobey you," they said.
"Will the sea obey me?" he asked. By this time the tide was coming in and the waves were getting closer. The foolish officers were afraid to say "no" and kept silent. But one foolish one exclaimed, "Command it, oh king, and it will obey."
"Sea," Canute said with authority, "I command you to come no farther. Waves, do not dare to touch my feet." But the tide continued to rise just as it did each day. The water rose to the king's chair, and wet not only his feet, but also soaked his royal robe.
The officers were a little concerned by this and not sure what to expect. With great drama, Canute stood up, took off his crown and threw it on the sand. He declared he would never wear it again. Hoping to teach all of those surrounding him a lesson, he reportedly said something like "All the inhabitants of the world should know that the power of kings is vain and trivial."
Canute's story is often used to make the point of the futility of trying to hold back the sea. Well, the legislators in North Carolina apparently did not read the story and have recently approved a new law that just went into effect that attempts to regulate a rise to the sea level.
The new law, signed by the governor, mandates that only the Division of Coastal Management will be allowed to put out an estimate of the rate of sea-level rise, and that these rates shall only be determined using historical data. Rates of sea-level rise may not include analysis of trends or scenarios of accelerated rates.
The bill was written in response to an estimate by the state's Coastal Resources Commission that sea level would rise by 39 inches by the end of the century, a significant increase from the past century.
This prompted fears of costlier home insurance and accusations of anti-development alarmism among residents and developers in the state's Outer Banks.
Tom Thompson, president of NC-20, a coastal development group and a key supporter of the law, said the science was flawed and that the commission failed to consider the economic consequences of the 39-inch rise. Those consequences include drawing of new flood zones, building of new waste treatment plants and the elevation of roads. These would cost the state hundreds of millions.
A geologist on the State Science Panel in North Carolina said every other state in the country is planning on a sea level rise or 3 feet of more. Maine is preparing for a rise of up to 6 feet by the year 2100. Delaware is prepared for a rise of 4.5 feet and Louisiana 3 feet. California is expecting a rise of 4.5 feet.
One North Carolina resident, writing in Scientific American, put it quite well when he stated that this legislation is tantamount to telling meteorologists "do not predict tomorrow's weather based on satellite images of a hurricane swirling offshore, moving towards us with 60 mph winds and 10 inches of rain. Predict the weather based on the last two weeks of fair weather with gentle breezes towards the east." And don't use barometers and radar images. Use the Farmer's Almanac and what grandpa remembers.
Gary Griggs is director of the Institute of Marine Sciences and Long Marine Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz. He can be reached at email@example.com. Visit the Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Lab website at http://seymourcenter.ucsc.edu/. For past Ocean Backyard columns visit http://www2.ucsc.edu/seymourcenter/