SWAN QUARTER, NORTH CAROLINA, This 19th century fishing village stands three feet above sea level at the bottom of the coastal plain known as the Inner Banks. It is home to 301 people, a small fishing fleet that has seen better days, and is surrounded by 18 miles of dikes, including a 7-foot steel barrier installed a couple of hurricanes ago, courtesy of FEMA’s millions.
When Stan Riggs, a coastal geologist, visited here two weeks after Hurricane Matthew blew through, Swan Quarter was dry behind its barricade. But the surrounding landscape remained sodden, and the signs of saltwater intrusion from storm surges and rising tides that Riggs likens to “a creeping disease” are visible all across the plain. Whole “ghost forests” poisoned by saltwater stand sentinel to rising tides.
“We cannot engineer our way out of this,” he says. “We can build bigger and bigger dikes, but the net changes are driven by ocean dynamics, and it’s on a one-way track right now.”
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North Carolina’s coastline is one of the three most vulnerable places along the Atlantic seaboard to sea-level rise, after South Florida and Norfolk, Virginia. Riggs and a team of scientists have predicted that North Carolina could be threatened by a 39-to-55-inch sea-level rise by 2100—enough to inundate not only the barrier islands that comprise the tourist-beckoning Outer Banks, but thousands of miles of the coastal lowlands behind them.
Yet, the debate in the Tar Heel State over how to effectively respond to the threat is far from settled. The science remains in dispute. The coastal plain river is dotted with signboards blaming flooding on federal wildlife refuge managers, as opposed to harsher storms and higher tides. The Republican-controlled state legislature drew ridicule in 2012 for attempting to “outlaw” climate change by prohibiting state agencies from planning for sea-level rise. In this year’s election, which includes a close governor’s race, the subject is so contentious that climate change barely comes up, if at all.
Officially, North Carolina has chosen to look only 30 years into the future, nine inches of sea-level rise by 2045 being a more palatable scenario than a turn-of-the-next century catastrophe. Scientists contend that such shortsightedness will result in more efforts to hold back the sea that will be costly, ineffective, and ultimately futile.
“We can put dikes around all of this,” Riggs says. “We can pump the water out forever. Are we going to do it for Swan Quarter or for the whole peninsula? We have 10,000 miles of estuary shore system. Are we going to dike and put bulkheads on that whole thing? It’s not Manhattan Island. It’s the size of Connecticut. We are looking at a pretty big hunk of property.”
Nags Head in the Outer Banks is one of many communities popular for second and seasonal homes. But how will such structures fare in the coming years?
PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL MARR
The Power of Hurricanes
If the scientists were hoping that Matthew, which killed at least 27 people and caused more than $1.5 billion in flood damage in North Carolina, could serve as a reminder about the link between rising seas and storm surges, Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University geology professor emeritus who specializes in beach erosion, says that is not likely to happen. One need only look to South Carolina, where Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989.
“Hurricanes are urban renewal projects,” he says. “The same lots where Hugo came through are all million-dollar lots now and they have million-dollar buildings on them. Why should Matthew be any different?”
Riggs, who began teaching at East Carolina University in Greenville in 1967, spent more than 30 years tracking erosion rates along coastal waters.
He was a long-serving member of the science panel of the Coastal Resources Commission, advising how to minimize erosion that is eating away tourist beaches on the Outer Banks and threatening developed coastal areas. Last July, after the commission began considering a series of projects that Riggs says will do more harm to the coast than good, he resigned from the science panel.
Riggs’ research showed barrier islands left to themselves are often healthier than islands fortified with seawalls and sandbags, which eventually will hasten the disappearance of the beach in front it them. The Outer Banks are already migrating west, losing sand on the ocean side and gaining it on the backside. But instead of trying to convince the politicians, he has decided to take the science directly to the public.
Much of North Carolina's Inner Banks lies only a few feet above sea level.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL MARR
Riggs has set up programs in several schools where science teachers can teach their students about the state’s hydrology and sea-level rise, with plans to expand the effort. Meanwhile, a charity he founded, North Carolina Land of Water, is producing a series of documentaries and books aimed at furthering the public’s education. A North Carolina shoreline of the future, he says, should develop more innovative ways to live with water, such as restoring marshes to hold excess floodwater, rather than continuing to try and wall the sea out.
“The question for North Carolina is what do you want with this coastal system? If we are smart, we can learn to live with it,” Riggs says. “But we have 127 miles of barrier island beaches that are looking for sand right now in order to have a summer economy. The average cost is $3 million a mile. It only lasts for an average of two years.”
Looking Near Term
Frank Gorham, chairman of the coastal commission, says Riggs misunderstands the challenges of talking about climate change to the public. Gorham himself did not believe the 90-year projection of sea-level rising 39 inches, and says the plan to look ahead 30 years, with updates and revisions done every five years, is a timeline the public will accept.
“Do I believe the sea is rising? Yes. I don’t believe anybody knows 90 years from now,” he says. “But nobody was taking this seriously. If you look at North Carolina, a whole bunch of North Carolina will be gone if the sea goes up 39 inches. A lot of people were saying, ‘you’re crazy, that’s not going to happen. I don’t believe you.’ When you have policies that everyone spends their time fighting, nothing ever gets done.”
One of the coastal commission’s most controversial projects is reconsideration of the dozen areas most vulnerable to erosion, known as inlet hazard areas. The effort was prompted by complaints from property owners who fear inclusion inside the boundaries of an inlet hazard zone translates into lower property values and higher flood insurance premiums.
“We had everybody screaming they did not want to be in an inlet hazard zone,” Gorham says. The new analysis will include not only natural changes to inlets as sand shifts, but also the protective effects of beach maintenance, such as renourishing beaches with new sand.
A kite inspired by the famous Wright Flyer takes wing over Nags Head.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL MARR
Gorham, who lives on the coast near Wilmington, calls himself “the biggest environmentalist there is,” says he will be “the first one screaming” if the projection of 39 inches of sea-level rise appears to be on track. Two weeks after Matthew, he had not yet had a chance to tour the hurricane’s handiwork but had received reports about washed away sand.
“I can tell you, in pockets there was a lot of lost sand. Primary dunes were lost,” he says. “A bunch of communities had built up very good frontal dune protection systems, from renourishment and by the planting of sea oats to hold the sand, and we lost a lot of that dune protection. A lot of us lost our first line of big-time protection. We may not have had houses overwashed, but we are more vulnerable now.”
Laura Parker is a staff writer who specializes in covering climate change and marine environments.