North Carolina’s coastline is used to taking a beating from Mother Nature. But with climate change thrown into the mix, protecting the coast becomes much more complicated.
It is hard to ignore the power of the water along our hundreds of miles of fragile coastline, and that power is rising thanks to climate change. The most vulnerable part of the coast are the Outer Banks, from Currituck County in the north, to Carteret in the south. They’re a dynamic set of barrier islands that protrude 40 miles into the ocean.
Hurricane Activity in the Atlantic has been elevated since the mid 1990s, but that isn’t necessarily tied to climate change, but to something called the multi-decadal cycle. It is a natural fluctuation of hurricane activity. Over the last 20 years, the number of storms has gone up, as expected.
During the high activity eras, you see a lot more activity affecting the East Coast. This isn’t going to be every year, but you certainly see more, and we’ve seen that since 1995 affecting the East Coast of the United States.
If the Atlantic Ocean warms by just one or two degrees, as predicted by many climatologists, we can expect more violent and frequent tropical storms. That would force more tourists off the islands, with the area’s economy taking a big hit.
Highway 12 is another frequent victim of storms along the coast, and each time a major storm batters the highway, it needs to be fixed or rebuilt, with your tax money. That begs the question, should we keep fixing it, or let nature run its course?
North Carolina Department of Transportation officials say that it is viable for them to work and rebuild the highway, because of the amount of tourists and commerce that takes place there. It is also the only road on and off of Hatteras Island. Without it, those living or vacationing there would be cut off.
Rising sea levels are the other big impact of climate change. The Atlantic has always played a role in reshaping the coastline naturally, but a warmer and larger ocean would speed up that rise.
In 1870 the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was located a safe 1500 feet from the ocean. But 100 years later beach erosion brought the Atlantic only 120 feet from its base. So it was moved from its original location, to where it sits today, 1600 feet from the ocean. And in another 100 years it will probably have to be moved again as these waters continue to rise.
A 2010 report by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission concluded that the sea level along the coast will likely rise by about one meter, by the end of this century, threatening up to 2,000 square miles. That’s roughly ten times the size of all of the land on the Outer Banks from Duck, southward to Ocracoke Island. With current laws prohibiting hardened structures like levies and jetties, there is only so much that can be done to protect the coast. The only two options for shoreline management are throwing sand on the beach to stabilize it, or move back.
The real challenge is to come up with that balance for the environment, commerce, and the well being and safety of the people living on the islands.