Saturday, April 16, 2016

Rising sea levels and the longevity of the Outer Banks

When one thinks of the North Carolina coast, specifically the Outer Banks, one thinks of nostalgic summers on a warm beach with surreal settings as described in a Nicholas Sparks novel. Most don’t think of the gradual fading of this land from our maps due to combined efforts of storms, development, and sea-level rising. Portions of the beach have receded over 2,500 ft. in the last 150 years, that’s an average of a little over 16 ft. a year. Additionally the width of the Outer Banks has narrowed to 25% of its original width. Houses and structures once safely inland are now meeting the sea, the single road State Highway 12 has been wrecked and washed out during multiple storms, All of these incidences are set to increase as sea-levels are set to rise world-wide due to global warming. Large economic setbacks for the Outer Banks tourism industry are subsequently further strained as time goes on.

This news of the deterioration of the islands however is not “news” at all. For years scientist have been predicting these results and have warned residents and government officials of this impending destruction. In 2010 Stanley Riggs, a coastal geologist, and fellow members of a science panel produced a report warning that North Carolina could face 1 meter of sea-level rise by 2100 from glacier melting and the expansion of warmer water. The report was met with controversy from coastal developers, skeptics, and state officials. Lawmakers in Raleigh considered a bill that would have prohibited state agencies from planning for accelerated sea-level rise. The irony as Riggs puts it is that the coast is vanishing now, not a hundred years from now.

The good news is that these sandy islands are resilient and able to adapt and survive through storms and sea-level rise by moving, given that they run a natural course. The bad news is that with the construction of Highway 12 in the 1950’s, the natural shift in the island westward has been severely limited, facilitating continual erosion on the ocean side and no growth on the sound side. The road also brought a $926 million tourism industry to maintain, which is dependent on the existence of the island, which the road itself is contributing to its diminishment.

Riggs has proposed that the state removes portions of the highway and stop maintaining large dunes to protect it. The removal of the road and dunes would allow sand to wash over the islands and rebuild them naturally on the sound side. He also suggests people visiting on the mainland and traveling by ferry to the Outer Banks rather than permanent residencies on the islands. Unfortunately this idea is not welcomed by most locals who are dependent on the tourism industry. For the mean time temporary fixes are being made by the delivery of sand from elsewhere to slow the progress of the narrowing of beaches. Riggs concludes by saying, “we will not be able to defend most coastal places throughout time. We will, in fact, retreat from most coastal places when the sea level gets more than one or two meters above where it is now.”

Mignoni, E. (2014, July). Rising Seas: Will the Outer Banks Survive? Retrieved April 16, 2016, from

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