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Thursday, March 11, 2010 - 2:19pm

Chatham County Starts Planning For Climate Change

If global warming isn't stopped, Georgia could lose between 50 and 100 square-miles of land to rising seas.

Coastal researchers and public policy makers are watching the sea's march and preparing for it

Outside the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, researcher Karrie Brinkley stands at the edge of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

Below her, the tide laps up toward the shoreline barely reaching her shoes, but she doesn't seem worried.

She’s more focused on the bulkhead near the edge of a nearby tree.

"This is about a normal tide for us. We do have the really high spring tides," Brinkley says.

Brinkley has spent the last few months traveling along the Georgia coastline in her blue, 19 foot Carolina Skiff.

She wants to find out where man-made structures, like roads, prevent the shore from migrating inland in a natural process that’s been happening for millions of years.

Brinkley says, identifying these structures is important because when sea level rises, there is a conflict between man and nature.

"Nothing like this has been done and so it's going to be helpful for not only all of the other counties that we will share this large database with, it's going to help us out with different type of city planning, as well," Brinkley says.

This week, the coast’s most populous county will determine where else man and nature could collide when the sea rises.

It’s part of a two-workshop on climate change issues in Chatham County.

Administrators, elected leaders and others will look at everything from home construction to transportation.

Jackie Teel of the Metropolitan Planning Commission says, Chatham County is being proactive instead of reactive.

"We're in a really good place right now. We're in that stage where planning is key. And we're doing things right in the sense of, we're starting to plan," Teel says.

Teel says, it’s important to go back to the way Mother Nature does business -- something called Green Infrastructure -- using trees, grassy areas and structures like pervious paving to handle storm-water.

Teel says, Chatham County still has a long way to go, but thinks it could set the lead in Georgia for planning for climate change.

"We're going to see what processes we do have in place and then on the opposite side, what processes we don't have in place," Teel says. "Do we need more staff in a particular area? Do we need to change out planning process?"

Chatham County has gone on record as wanting become Georgia’s “greenest county.”

Some residents, however, feel the county is far behind that goal.

Glenn McKee serves on a county-appointed climate change comittee and lives on Isle of Hope, where low-roads provide access on-and-off the island.

At very high tides, the road is flooded.

Her biggest complaint is that something already should have been set in place years earlier.

"Unfortunately, the planning process is so delayed. I mean, plans that are on the drawing board right now were probably planned for ten years ago," McKee says "So, even if a discussion starts in earnest now, it will take ten years to start factoring in."

Tybee Island has the most to lose in climate change.

Stronger storms could eat away at the island’s beach.

And half the island could go underwater by century’s end

Tybee Island mayor Jason Buelterman doesn’t sound optimistic.

"It is something that occupies your mind, but I have to be honest with you, the things that are at the forefront of our minds are the immediate issues," Buelterman says. "Thinking about this is something that you think about, but there's not a whole lot that we can really do about it."

Chatham County officials are at least getting a start on planning for climate change.

And that’s still light years ahead of smaller coastal counties.

Some of them don’t have comprehensive environmental planning of any kind.

The next strong hurricane could be the first real test of who’s prepared and who isn’t for the rising sea.

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Orlando Montoya contributed reporting and editing.