Sea Level Rise, One More Frontier For Climate Dialogue Controversy

Residents and civic officials from Delaware to San Francisco and from Galveston to North Carolina’s Outer Banks are learning as they go on preparing for sea level rise risks that some of their residents fundamentally doubt. Part I of a Two-Part Feature.

As the oceans rise in coming decades, coastal communities will face wrenching decisions about which places to protect and which to abandon to the encroaching sea.

But scientists and planners around the country are finding that preparing for sea level rise involves far more than merely organizing an orderly retreat.

Some citizens view sea level rise as a hoax and are combing peer-reviewed literature and arguments from websites skeptical of climate change to make their case. Others are turning out to public meetings to oppose plans for sea level rise. A few even worry that planners are dupes of a United Nations or “one-world” plot. (See related post and video.)

But in recent interviews, planners and scientists who study the issue said that most Americans simply don’t know much about how sea level rise could affect them. Even so,  in places such as Galveston, Texas, which has a long history of devastating hurricanes, residents are eager to stave off future flooding.

‘Wildly Speculative Outcomes’

North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a 200-mile strand of low-lying islands, are unstable by nature. Waves press against the shore, sucking up sand, stowing it elsewhere. Passing hurricanes carve new inlets.

In 2010, a panel of scientists examined peer-reviewed literature on how quickly the ocean could rise around the state’s coast. They released a report concluding that North Carolina should plan for a meter of sea level rise by 2100.

Once the report went public, the backlash came swiftly.

Citizens began submitting detailed comments, criticizing the report almost sentence-by-sentence, said Antonio Rodriguez, an associate professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a contributor to it.

The comments took Rodriguez aback.

“I wasn’t surprised that people didn’t like the number,” he said. “But I was very surprised by the way they went about it.”

Critics identified articles from peer-reviewed journals that found little acceleration in sea level rise, such as a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Coastal Research and a 2006 paper in Geophysical Research Letters.

“There are those papers out there,” Rodriguez said. “Part of our job was to weed through the research and identify the best research to base these predictions for North Carolina on — and not emphasize other research that is not as high-quality.”

Citizens also repeated arguments popularized by websites skeptical of climate change. In a lengthy critique, Morehead City resident John Droz, Jr., pointed to work by skeptics Steve McIntyre, S. Fred Singer, and Nils-Axel Mörner as evidence that the science panel’s work was flawed.

“It appears that they felt that they had to come up with something to get people’s attention,” wrote Droz, a board member of NC-20, a group that has been outspoken against restrictions on coastal development. “In the unscientific society we currently find ourselves in, it was an easy matter for them to find other like-minded researchers who had constructed computer models that projected wildly speculative outcomes.”

Douglas Harris, a commissioner for coastal Carteret County, told The Yale Forum that imposing regulations in preparation for sea level rise would create significant hardships for North Carolina residents. For example, a policy accounting for a six-inch rise in water tables would prevent officials from issuing new permits for septic tanks in the eastern portion of the county, he said.

He added that he questions the science panel’s projection.

“State bureaucrats are convinced that the present nonexistent increasing rate of sea level rise will increase rapidly in the future,” he wrote in an e-mail message. State officials, he wrote, “are aggressively ‘educating’ and manipulating local government officials to impose 39-inch sea-level-rise planning immediately.”

In fact, the N.C. Division of Coastal Management announced in October that it will delay taking action on sea level rise while the science panel prepares a response to public criticism.

‘A Maintenance Nightmare’

Just a few hundred miles up the coast, a proposal to eliminate a frequently flooded parking lot on Assateague Island, Va., has sparked controversy in the nearby community of Chincoteague.

Since the 1960s, Chincoteague has relied on income from tourists who visit the one-mile beach on Assateague Island, well-known for its free-roaming wild horses. But storms often erode the adjacent parking lot, and last summer, Hurricane Irene swept the lot away entirely.

“It’s a maintenance nightmare,” said Louis Hinds, manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

With an eye on the rising sea, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed, among several other options, relocating the publicly accessible beach 1.5 miles north and using shuttles to transport tourists from inland parking lots.

The proposal angered some Chincoteague residents, who feared that the less-convenient shuttles would drive away beach-goers. In public meetings, some life-long residents said they had seen no evidence of a rising sea.

“There was a vocal group within the community that was in denial about sea level rise,” Hinds said. “In my naiveness, I expected everyone to get on board, because the science is out there now.”

Still, Hinds said, the refuge is proceeding with plans to use a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to purchase property for a back-up parking lot.

‘A Fire under Us … We Have To Fight’

Rice University oceanographer John Anderson experienced a backlash of his own last fall over a report on sea level rise in Galveston Bay, Texas.

The report, a chapter in a longer volume about the state of the Galveston Bay, stated that sea level rise is accelerating and that rates could exceed four millimeters a year by 2100. But officials at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) deleted references to rising sea levels and to human influences on the climate.

After Anderson complained about the changes and said he would not allow his name to be printed on the edited chapter, TCEQ officials relented. In December, Anderson and state officials reached a compromise on the wording of the chapter, which has since been published.

In a recent telephone interview, Anderson said the incident left him and other scientists feeling invigorated.

“It’s put a fire under us,” he said. He added that he and other Gulf Coast scientists are organizing a consortium to issue consensus statements about sea level rise. “We have to fight, because the price of not fighting those battles is unacceptable.”

Engaging Citizens …

In the nearby city of Galveston, Texas, a series of workshops held last fall to plan for erosion sparked concerns that new rules would hurt property values. (Residents of Galveston are well familiar with the city’s long history of devastating hurricanes, such as the 1900 hurricane that killed more than 8,000 people. And that memory is built into the DNA of the city’s residents and their thoughts about such issues.)

But Planning Director Wendy O’Donohoe said that Hurricane Ike, which in 2008 had damaged or destroyed three-quarters of the city’s homes, heightened citizen interest in flooding and sea level rise.

“There are people in the community with very strong opinions that this is happening, and that we need to plan for it,” she said.

… from Delaware to San Francisco …

Similarly, but across the country, coastal residents in Delaware are more likely than inland residents to say they have personally experienced the effects of sea level rise, said Susan Love, a planner for Delaware Coastal Programs.

Love has hosted a series of public engagement sessions around the state to help residents better understand the issue.

After one meeting, a resident submitted a comment suggesting that Love might be a dupe of a United Nations conspiracy.

“Please consider the fact,” the person wrote, “that your committee may be being used to promote an agenda not known to the members, as a means to insure local compliance to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, wetlands project, as a vital step in attaining sustainable development. This is set forth in the U.N. ‘Agenda 21′ program.”

The resident’s comment appears to refer to a conspiracy theory, advanced by anti-U.N. activists, that sustainable development is a socialist plot to undermine property rights.

But Love said such beliefs are in the minority. A 2009 survey commissioned by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control found that 75 percent of Delaware residents believe that climate change is contributing to sea level rise. Twenty-two percent reported that they had personally experienced the effects of a rising sea.

And in San Francisco, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission recently approved a policy to require communities near the shoreline to plan for sea level rise before they build in areas that may flood in coming decades.

Steve Goldbeck, the commission’s acting executive director, said that when the policy was first proposed, it kindled controversy. Many Bay area residents believed scientists were still debating whether climate change is occurring, or thought that it would only affect polar bears or people in the far-distant future, he said. Some members of local governments feared that the commission would seize jurisdiction of inundated areas.

From 2009 through 2011, the commission held workshops with environmental, business and local government groups, along with 35 public hearings. The commission amended the policy’s language to assuage concerns about jurisdiction and to satisfy business and environmental leaders. In October 2011, with broad support from interest groups, commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the new policy.

Lessons Learned … A Problem WITH a Solution

Planners and scientists said these experiences have taught them plenty about communicating with the public about issues related to climate change.

For example, Delaware’s Susan Love said she frames sea level rise in positive terms. “We try to make this a problem that has a solution,” she said. “It’s not something that is happening that we have no control over.”

Part II of this story will examine these and other strategies for engaging the public on sea level rise.

In the meantime, how is planning for sea level rise unfolding in your community? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail:, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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13 Responses to Sea Level Rise, One More Frontier For Climate Dialogue Controversy

  1. Bill Price says:

    North Carolina tidelands present a unique “real world” laboratory for Sea Level study.
    The NC Science Panel’s “literature search” failed to compare US Coast Survey’s surveys and tide gage data from the 1850s with contemporary USGS data. Maybe that data is valid- Maybe not. Maybe it shows SLR-Maybe not. Whatever is shows, shouldn’t valid scientific inquiry evaluate the historical information? Wouldn’t 150 year old survey data be more accurate than measuring 1,000 year old fossilized chemistry in Greenland?
    Bill Price

  2. Tom Moriarty says:

    The most commonly quoted sea level rise projection for the 21st century is from Vermeer and Rahmstorf (PNAS, 2009). They relied on 20th century sea level data from Church and White (Geophysical Research Letters, 2006). Church and White built their sea level data from the tide gauge data at the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL).

    You can see the entire set of PSMSL tide gauge data, set to music no less, here…

    It is a fun way to look for sea level rise acceleration.

  3. John Droz, jr. says:

    THis is a reasonably balanced assessment of what happened in NC. Two comments:
    1 – “In 2010, a panel of scientists examined peer-reviewed literature on how quickly the ocean could rise around the state’s coast.”
    There was little, if any “peer-reviewed” literature in that report.

    2 – “There are those papers out there,” Rodriguez said. “Part of our job was to weed through the research and identify the best research to base these predictions for North Carolina on — and not emphasize other research that is not as high-quality.”

    What Rodriquez fails to say that he and his confirmationally biased associates in their “thorough” research of the literature could not find a SINGLE “worthy” paper or study that came to any other conclusion than the one they were advocating. That is simply preposterous, as I showed in my 30+ page Critique.

  4. Sara Peach says:

    Thanks all for your comments. A quick note: If you check the reference section of the 2010 N.C. Sea Level Rise Assessment Report, you’ll see a list of literature the panel members consulted, including papers that passed peer review and were published in journals such as Science, International Journal of Climatology, etc.

    • Tom Moriarty says:

      John Droz’s comment, above, is essentially correct. This is despite Sara Peach’s appeal to the list of peer reviewed sources.

      One of those fundamental peer reviewed sources was Vermeer and Rahmstorf (PNAS, 2009). This paper is so profoundly flawed that it makes a mockery of the peer review process.

      The Vermeer/Rahmstorf model is of the form…

      dH/dt = a(T(t) – To) + bDT/dt

      Where H is sea level and a, To and b are fit parameters

      They fit their model to 120 years of historical temperature and sea level data. This is not super-computer stuff, and anybody can reproduce their results on their home PC. I have. Once the best fit values of a, To, and b were found they applied the model to IPCC temperature scenarios for the 21st century to make sea level rise projections.

      The odd thing is, they found b to be negative. It is not just me who finds this odd – Vermeer expressed this point himself. In an online forum he says “negative b. Hmmm, strange. That was for real data from the real Earth.”

      Undaunted, they plowed ahead, giving a very limp plausibility explanation for the negative “b.” (Funny though, I wonder if they would have felt the need to give a plausibility argument if b had been positive. They apparently did not feel the need to ‘explain’ the signs of a or To.)

      Their plausibility argument goes something like this: Rapidly increasing temperatures (dT/dt is large) causes a delayed response in glaciers moving into the sea, which causes a delayed sea level rise, which explains a negative b. But that explanation is ridiculously flawed, because a negative b doesn’t just result in a delayed of sea level rise increase – it actually REDUCES the sea level rise rate for a set of realistic temperature scenarios.

      For example, take any IPCC temperature scenario for the 21st century for the 21st century, T(t) and apply Vermeer’s and Rahmstorf’s model to it to derive dH/dt. Now consider dH’/dt by adding this to it…

      T’(t) = C exp( (-a/b)Gamma(t-t’))

      You can choose C and gamma such that T(t) + T’(t) is a realistic temperature scenario when compared the many IPCC temperature scenarios for the 21st. Of course, a and b are defined by Vermeer and Rahmstorf.

      Let’s assume C is positive. If you choose gamma=1, you will get a temperature scenario such where T(t) + T’(t) is greater than T(t) for all t, yet dH’/dt will be exactly the same as dH/dt. This is true even is you relax the necessity of choosing C and gamma to yield a realistic T(t) + T’(t) (say an additional 1 degree increase for the 21st century over T(t)). You could make the temperature go up 10 degrees or a 100 degrees – it won’t make any difference to the Vermeer’s and Rahmstorf’s model – dH’/dt will be exactly the same as dH/dt.

      Now suppose you choose gamma > 1. Start by choosing C and gamma to yield a realistic T’(t) (say an extra half a degree or degree by the end of the 21st century). You will find the bizarre situation where T(t) + T’(t) is greater than T(t) for the entire 21st century, but dH’/dt is lower than dH/dt for the entire 21st century. Now choose ridiculous values of C and/or gamma (say T’(t) adds 100 degrees over the 21st century) and you will sea dH’/dt plummeting while sea level rise rates skyrocket.

      The reverse situation is true if you choose gamma < 1. You will find T(t) + T'(t) is less than T(t) for the entire 21st century, but dH'/dt is greater than dH/dt for the entire 21st century.

      This is the math speaking, not me. It is a direct result of Vermeer's and Rahmstorf's model and a negative b. It is incontrovertible. Yet somehow their paper passed peer review.

      The Vermeer/Rahmstorf model is the progeny of Ramhstorf's simpler 2007 model (Science, 2007). Presumably, this Science paper also passed peer review. However, six months after it was published Rahmstorf kindly sent me the code he used, and noted "you are the first outside person to test this code."

      Huh? I thought it had been peer reviewed!

      Apparently any peer review of this fundamental part of the Science paper must have been done by some "inside" person.

      My conclusion from the Climategate emails is that there is one type of peer review for the "inside" and a different type of review for the "outside."

      Anyway, if you are interested, you can see an examples of the bizarre results of Vermeer and Rahmstorf's model here…

      Be sure to check my math here…

      Or for a broader long-winded, overview see…

      • Xerxes Zorgon says:

        The first term in Vermeer and Rahmstorf’s model
        a(T(t) – T0) is a linear function describing the expansion of seawater with increasing temperature. There’s no need for a plausibility argument, it’s just physics, and a is a positive number because expansion and temperature are directly correlated. The T0 is just the starting temperature from the year they began the fit.

        The second term fits the rate of change of temperature with sea level rise. As they say in the paper, it accounts for the increase in the number of man-made reservoirs. The fact that b is negative, is really not that surprising at all. During times of rapid temperature increases, more water is driven into the atmosphere due to evaporation, which is then trapped by the reservoirs.

        But then you make this bizarre substitution of an exponential function for the temperature and claim that you get unrealistic values for dH/dt. The derivative of the exponential function is the exponential function times the coefficient on t, so by setting gamma = 1, you can come up with dH/dt = 0 for all time! You say this is the math speaking, not you. No, this is you pulling a function out of thin air that has no basis in reality, and was never used by Vermeer and Rahmstorf, just so you could attempt to prove your point. They never made this substitution and I’m sure never had any intention to do so. You could just have easily chosen T(t) = 0 and gotten the same result.

        Your argument is complete and utter nonsense.

        • Tom Moriarty says:


          Thank you for the comments.

          Vermeer and Rahmstorf derived the fit values for a, b, and To with 20th century sea level data and temperature data. Once these values were derived, they could apply their model to various temperature projections for the 21st century and make sea level projections.

          The IPCC 4th Assessment Report provided 342 different temperature scenarios for the 21st century. They came from 19 different atmosphere-ocean general circulation models, each put through three different carbon cycle feedback models and six different CO2 emission scenarios. Every one of those 342 temperature scenarios was unique in some way. The point is that the Vermeer/Rahmstorf model should be able to handle any reasonable temperature scenario.

          In light of those 342 temperature scenarios there is nothing particularly unusual about my hypothetical scenario. For example, if you look at figure 3, here…

          you will see three simple scenarios nestled between the IPCC A1T and A1F1 average scenarios used by Vermeer and Rahmstorf. Please take a look. My three simple scenarios are not unusual or outrageous compared with all the other scenarios used by Vermeer and Rahmstorf. They are perfectly reasonable, and the Vermeer/Rahmstorf model should easily handle them.

          Now, sea level rise rate can be easily calculated with the Vermeer/Rahmstorf model for all five temperature scenarios shown in figure 3 (The IPCC A1T and AIF1 and my three additional scenarios) Figure 4 shows the results when the Vermeer/Rahmstorf model is applied to those five temperature scenarios. There is no mistake. My three scenarios, which have higher temperatures than the the A1T scenario all for every year of the 21st century yield exactly the same sea level rise rate as the A1T scenario. I could just as easily have created temperature scenarios lower every year that also produced sea level rise rates exactly the same as A1F.

          Yes, you are right that choosing “by setting gamma = 1, you can come up with [the additional] dH/dt = 0 for all time!” The relevant point is that by setting gamma =1 you can increase or decrease the temperature (depending on the sign of C) without effecting the the sea level rise rate at all according to the Vermeer/Rahmstorf model! How can that be?

          But there is nothing special about gamma=1. It is chosen only as a simple and obvious example: it changes the temperature without any change in the sea level rise rate. You seem to have grasped the point that the additional sea level rise rate is zero. But the increased temperature does not seem to have sunk in.

          But things get even stranger when different values of gamma are chosen. If gamma > 1, (and letting C be positive) and adding the result to the IPCC A1T temperature scenario, then the temperature will be HIGHER every year of the century while the sea level rise rate will be LOWER every year of the century.

          Conversely if gamma < 1, (and letting C be positive) and adding the result to the IPCC A1T temperature scenario, then the temperature will be LOWER every year of the 21st century while the sea level rise rate will be HIGHER every year of the century.

          It is incontrovertible.

          This is the very reason that the Vermeer/Rahmstorf model must be rejected.

  5. John Droz, jr. says:


    I did check again my copy of the report. If you do a Find of the word “peer” you’ll see that it does not exist in the report. In other words there is no claim in that Report that the “references” are peer-reviewed. Maybe one of them told you that in some correspondence. The fact is that there references are NOT a collection of “peer-reviewed” papers.

    There may be a few that are, but my point still stands: there are just as many studies and “peer-reviewed” papers that contradict their conclusions that were never mentioned.

    This is Confirmation Bias.

    • Jeff Barber says:

      Confirmation Bias?
      Maybe you should review you own response and think about you anecdotal “comments from experts” that you present, or the gross bias that is apparent.

    • Jesse says:


      You seem to have a basic misunderstanding of the phrase “peer-reviewed.” An article published in a scientific journal must be reviewed and commented on by other scientists before it can be published in that journal. The reference section in the 2010 N.C. Sea Level Rise Assessment Report shows which articles were used as references for the report and also which scientific journals these references can be found in. These articles are “peer-reviewed” because they have been reviewed by other scientists and subsequently published in the journal. The report doesn’t mention the word “peer-reviewed” because its common knowledge that these published articles are all peer-reviewed.

      Comments from blogs, email chains, etc. are acceptable as opinions but are not used as references in scientific reports because they have not been peer-reviewed.

  6. Nullius in Verba says:

    “Twenty-two percent reported that they had personally experienced the effects of a rising sea.”

    This is a fascinating statistic, and reminds me of the one about the number who believe they have experienced close encounters with aliens. What experiences are they talking about?

    The sea level rise over the past 50 years is reported to have been about 10 cm. It’s rather a lot less than tides, weather, subsidence and erosion cause, none of which are perfectly regular, so it would require quite careful observation over a fairly long period to be sure that you were really seeing it. Do 22% of the people watch the sea that closely? How does that come about? What signs did they actually see?

    These seem like obvious questions. And a recounting of specific events would surely aid the cause, so I find it curious that nobody asked.

    “The resident’s comment appears to refer to a conspiracy theory, advanced by anti-U.N. activists, that sustainable development is a socialist plot to undermine property rights.”

    Conspiracy theories are widespread, and are indeed a problem for credibility, but the point is somewhat misunderstood. The distinguishing feature of the ‘conspiracy theory’ is not that they posit a conspiracy of powerful interests, but that they have no evidence for it. When challenged on the lack of evidence, the story is that it was ‘covered up’ by those same powerful interests. No evidence is exactly what you would expect to see if the conspiracy theory was true.

    The classic conspiracy theory is a case of the ‘confirming the consequent’ fallacy. Since there would be no visible evidence if the conspiracy was true and the conspirators sufficiently powerful, a total lack of evidence only goes to confirm the theory. It is, rightly, seen as invalid thinking.

    But the pattern has led to some believing that any claims of ‘conspiracy’ (or even ‘concerted action’) constitute a conspiracy theory, and using the label to dismiss a claim on those grounds alone. This is likewise invalid. If there is evidence presented for a conspiracy, then the dismissal does not apply.
    The evidence may be wrong or insufficient, but if it exists then the problem is something else.

    So to be able to call something a ‘conspiracy theory’ in the popular sense, you need to demonstrate that the claimants present no evidence for it, which means examining their claims in more detail than is done above.

    In this case, it is claimed that far from being a secret, the UN is moderately open about its intentions; and so we can actually examine the UN documents that have given rise to the claim.
    (Note: I am not myself claiming that the theory is true, I am only talking about the methods used. The question is about whether the evidence presented stacks up, not about why there is no evidence.)

    Here, for example, is a UN document that some have used to support their claims discussing aspirations for an international climate deal written for the Durban negotiations:
    “[The UN] Agrees that predictable and sustained, adequate, new and additional public financing from Parties included in Annex II to the Convention (Annex II Parties) shall be provided to non-Annex I Parties;”

    This is stating the intention that the future deal will involve transfers of wealth from the rich countries to the poor ones. Whether wealth redistribution from rich to poor constitutes ‘Socialism’ I leave to the political theorists, but this is the point any response has to address. The evidence appears relevant and to the point.

    The UN goes on:
    “[The UN] Acknowledges that the scale of financial flows to non-Annex I Parties shall be based on the assessments of the their needs to deal with climate change”

    This echoes the famous “To each according to his needs” dictum. Is it Socialism, though?

    How about undermining property rights? Well, the UN document makes a call for this:
    “The removal of all obstacles, including intellectual property rights and patents on climate-related technologies to ensure the transfer of technology to developing countries.”

    Again, there would appear to be relevant evidence that some in the UN would wish to undermine certain property rights, and are pushing for legislation to do so. Whether the evidence is sufficient is another matter, but it does not appear that a lack of evidence is being explained away as due to a cover-up. Evidence in support of the claim has been presented and can actually been examined. So it seems unfair to dismiss it as a “conspiracy theory” without clarifying exactly what is meant.

    The link to the document is here:
    It is a proposal that has not yet been adopted by the UN.
    It is of course not the only UN document to express such sentiments, it is only picked out here as an example for its association with the climate debate.

    One final point – are claims that climate scepticism is entirely instigated and funded by the oil industry a case of a “conspiracy theory”? If not, why not?

  7. Bill Price says:

    Ms. Peach,
    As the dialogue continues…….
    - Everyone agrees that SL has been rising since the last ice age ( slowly) .
    - Sea Grant says that NOAA has found no signal of Acceleration.
    - Consequently, the current rate of SLR must be the past rate of SLR ( near term).
    - CRC Science Panel says combined rate SLR + Subsidence for OBX is 18″ / 100 y.
    - That would be +/- 24″ for the past 150 years for Northeastern NC.
    - Dr. Pilky says that 1′ SLR will force up to 2 miles inundation in some tidelands.
    - If SLR will force future inundation, it should have done so over past 150 years.
    - Compare 1850′s US Coast Survey surveys with current USGS surveys.
    I can’t see much if any inundation caused by 2′ SLR. Can you? Where?
    Bill Price

    • Jesse says:


      Have you been to Duck and seen telephone poles several hundred feet in the water where the road used to be? Are you aware of constant beach nourishment projects along the entire NC coast to stop homes from being washed into the sea? Did you hear about the Hatteras Lighthouse being moved inland because it was about to fall into the sea? Are you aware of how often NC12 gets washed away during storms? Have you looked at any of the historical shoreline data in NC published by the NC Division of Coastal Management?