Sunday, March 3, 2024

Betting on a Shore Thing

Betting on a shore thing

East Carolina University geologists show how shifting sands and the rising sea level can shape a new coastal economy.
From The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis and Vision for the Future by Stanley R. Riggs, Dorothea V. Ames, Stephen J. Culver and David J. Mallinson. Copyright © 2011 by The University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Change along our coastline has been a constant since the present system of barrier islands and associated estuaries and their wetlands first formed several thousand years ago. We must, therefore, accept that change will continue into the future. Sea-level rise will continue, perhaps at an increased rate, and storms will surely impact our coast on a regular basis and perhaps with greater intensity than in the past.

None of this would be of concern were it not for the fact that we have managed our coastal zone as if it were a static system. We have become dependent on large coastal segments that are devoted to agriculture and forest industries, commercial and sport fisheries and a burgeoning tourist industry. These businesses and the fixed structures (roads, bridges, buildings and supporting infrastructure) built on mobile barrier islands, migrating estuaries and wetlands are imperiled because the coastal system will inexorably continue to evolve and migrate.

Thus, we have conflicts. How should we manage the processes of inevitable change? How do we allow coastal marshes to migrate upward and landward with rising sea level? Should a new bridge traverse Oregon Inlet? Should we build a superport in the Cape Fear River? Should terminal groins be built at our inlets and concrete and steel bulkheads be built along the ocean beach? Should all the ocean shorelines be renourished regularly to provide sandy beaches? Are there adequate sand resources to artificially maintain the beaches and enough economic resources to carry the stabilization projects forward into the near future? Should we close all future inlets when they are opened by storms? How do we maintain a highway down the Outer Banks when the islands narrow to thin strips of sand? How should we protect the natural resources that form the basis of our tourism economy? Can we truly maintain the status quo? And how much will it cost to do so? The questions are endless. Furthermore, the existing conflicts mean that management of our coast is already in a state of crisis, one that will only get worse.

It is inevitable that coastal change will take place and that some of it will be catastrophic. But associated with these changes will be opportunities that we can capitalize on — if we are prepared to do so. Rather than ignore or despair of coastal change, we should plan extensively to adapt to it. Adaptation is the key to the maintenance and future of our coastal-based economy, as well as protecting the natural resources on which that economy is dependent.

Until the mid-20th century, most of the North Carolina barrier islands had a series of isolated villages with subsistence populations that supported small and local tourist and fishing industries. However, in the second half of the 20th century, the coastal barriers evolved into an economic engine that has become a critical cornerstone of North Carolina’s overall economy. Billions of tourism dollars are generated annually. North Carolina’s 20 coastal counties now have 865,000 residents (10.3% of the state’s population). Several oceanfront counties had population growth rates of 75% to 150% from 1970 to 2000.

The barrier islands that were previously dominated by small “mom and pop” beach cottages are now being bulldozed and redeveloped with mansions, high-rise hotels, condominiums and big-box-store shopping malls surrounded by franchised restaurants and motels. Upsizing has become the basis for the recent spurt in economic growth and development. Similar but more extensive urbanization has already occurred immediately north and south of the North Carolina borders in Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach, respectively. These coastal ocean cities already employ shoreline hardening and endless beach nourishment in order to protect the economic base. What future is there for such economic machines when sea level rises another 3 to 4 feet or more? Urban evolutionary succession is already in progress in North Carolina, but it has not yet reached the levels that our northern and southern neighbors have attained.

We must ask ourselves two specific questions concerning the future of coastal North Carolina. Do we want, and can we afford, continued urbanization with unlimited high-rise hotels and condominiums, along with the necessary shoreline hardening and continuous beach nourishment? Or do we want a sustainable barrier island/estuarine system with a viable coastal economy that can function and survive during a time of increased rate of sea-level rise and possibly increased intensity of storms?

There are limits to both the growth and the type of development on mobile barrier islands and the associated wetlands and estuaries. To preserve the barrier island-based tourist and recreation economy, as well as the natural resources on which it is based, it is imperative that we start to work on viable, long-term management plans that include selective downsizing and adaptation to a dynamic and rapidly changing natural system. The other portions of the coastal system (the drowned-river estuaries, marsh and swamp forest wetlands and perimeter uplands) must be included in this planning, as they are intimately interlinked with the barrier islands and estuaries in a fully functional coastal system. The possibilities for adaptive coastal management are limited only by our imaginations.

For the purposes of this discussion, the following vision for the North Carolina coastal system is divided into three components: the northeastern barrier islands (north of Cape Lookout), the southeastern barrier island segments (south of Cape Lookout) and the northeastern portion of North Carolina’s northern coastal zone that includes all of the estuarine, riverine and adjacent coastal counties. We name these components the String of Pearls, Islands of Opportunity and Land of Water.


Oregon Inlet Bridge and state Highway 12 were built in the 1950s and 1960s to enhance the economic development of the Outer Banks. Traversing Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the highway connected eight isolated villages (Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras and Ocracoke) to the urban area to the north, from Nags Head to Corolla. To the north of Corolla is the sparsely developed northern Currituck barrier that extends to the Virginia state line. To the south of Ocracoke are the undeveloped Core Banks, which extend to Cape Lookout.

Most of these sparsely developed islands are under the control of the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and N.C. Division of Coastal Management. But all of these barrier islands are being challenged by ever-increasing land-use pressures. Representing North Carolina’s String of Pearls, the small villages on these islands will have to be managed in a way that responds not only to population and land-use demands but also to the consequences of climate change and sea-level rise.

Now is the time to rethink our approach to managing the sediment-poor island segments that are specifically threatened by rising sea level, storms and human modification. If we were to withdraw from some of the coastal highways and terminate construction of barrier dune ridges, the islands would begin their natural rebirth, with inlet and overwash dynamics serving once more to rebuild them. The islands would re-equilibrate, just as the Core Banks have done over the past half-century. The eventual result could be a barrier-island system with eight Ocracoke-style destination villages, situated like a string of pearls on a vast network of inlet and shoal environments that would afford us many new opportunities for economic development.

We cannot stop major storms from striking North Carolina. We cannot stop sea level from rising. We cannot stop the barrier islands’ natural tendency to migrate upward and landward in response to rising sea level. We are now at a threshold. Large segments of the barrier islands on the Outer Banks have narrowed by 50% to 75% over the past 150 years. Highway 12 can no longer be relocated on some of these narrow island segments. But we can still maintain a vital coastal economy and preserve the natural-resource base.

As a starting point for discussion, consider this hypothetical course of action. What if we were to withdraw from the present plan to rebuild Oregon Inlet bridge (except for the ends to be utilized as fishing piers) and from trying to maintain Highway 12 (except within Bodie Island and the villages of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras and Ocracoke)? Not only would we save billions of dollars of road and bridge construction and maintenance over the next few decades, but we could also expect the following responses. Without Highway 12, coastal segments that are predominantly on public lands would no longer need to be maintained with constructed barrier dune-ridges, sandbags and beach nourishment. Inlets could open as needed, build island width with new flood-tide deltas and close naturally. Frequent overwash could build island elevation. These island segments will not disappear because of the breadth and shallow character of Hatteras Flats, an area of extensive sand shoals along the western side of the Outer Banks. Rather, the increase in overwash and inlet-shoal habitats would result in a larger number of fishing sites, as well as opportunities for other forms of recreation, including hiking, camping, kayaking, birding and off-road vehicle use, all of which are critical for a healthy coastal tourism and recreational economy. The greater water exchange between Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean would result in substantial improvement in water quality and productivity for the marine and estuarine ecosystems and the associated commercial and recreational fisheries. In addition, the overwash and inlet environments would substantially enhance natural habitats for shore birds and turtles.

A world-class ecotourism economy could be built around the natural and human history and culture of North Carolina’s unique coastal system. Each barrier island community would have the potential to become an Ocracoke-style destination village. The villages could be interconnected by a system of modern ferries and water taxis (catamaran hydrofoils, some perhaps jet-powered) capable of moving large numbers of visitors rapidly to and between destination villages with minimal disturbance to the natural environment. Supply trucks, tourist buses, garbage trucks, SUVs and personal vehicles of the village residents could be transported to and from the islands using the state ferry system or hovercraft similar to those used in Europe.

Many islands around the world and within the United States depend on efficient and high-speed ferry systems to maintain their basic lifestyles and tourism industries. For example, in 2009 Washington state moved 13 million passengers through its coastal waters with high-tech ferries, and each year 2.5 to 3 million passengers who don’t have access to bridges or roads travel by ferry to and from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. According to the Strategic Plan for Cape Hatteras National Seashore: 2006–2011, the seashore attracts 2.5 million visitors annually. Thus, other tourist destinations can and do efficiently move the people who currently visit the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and its associated villages.

The Outer Banks ferries and water taxis would connect to a series of ferry terminals located at the small, rural, mainland villages, such as Wanchese, Stumpy Point, Engelhard, Swan Quarter, Bayboro and Cedar Island, which could also become tourist destinations. These towns could maintain short- and long-term parking lots, allowing tourists in the barrier-island villages to utilize less invasive types of transportation, such as bicycles, electric carts, trams, pedicabs, trolleys and mule trains. Mainland towns would be in a position to develop many local businesses — such as motels, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and service stations — and they could become centers for new natural-resource-oriented businesses. Potential opportunities for locally run services include water taxis and charter boats connecting mainland towns and barrier islands utilizing the estuarine waterways; guided trips for various types of birding, fishing and hunting; and ecotours, such as black-water paddle and camping trips, estuarine cruising trips, coastal over-flight field trips and historical tours.

No doubt the removal of Highway 12 from the Outer Banks sounds radical to managers, residents and visitors (including the authors of this book) accustomed to driving their personal vehicles everywhere. But this policy is already in effect on several of North Carolina’s barrier islands, including Cape Lookout National Seashore, Hammocks Beach, Masonboro Beach State Parks and the developed portions of Bald Head Island.


The developed or urbanized barrier islands in North Carolina include most of the islands in the southern coastal zone, extending from Bogue Banks through Brunswick County to the South Carolina state line. The Corolla-to-Nags Head portion of the northeastern barriers belongs in this Islands of Opportunity category as well. Because this land is generally in private ownership, a vision for its future must be considerably different than that for the northern String of Pearls. However, extensive new economic opportunities exist for these urbanized islands as we adapt to changes resulting from continuing sea-level rise.

Bald Head Island provides an example of how a developed barrier island can be managed in an economically viable manner. This complex barrier island forms Cape Fear and is adjacent to the mouth of the Cape Fear River and at the landward end of Frying Pan Shoals. The only access is by a catamaran ferry boat. An extensive system of parking lots on the mainland is complemented by ferry terminals with sophisticated baggage-handling capabilities and a tram system on the island along with bicycle and electric cart rentals. Only emergency, construction and supply vehicles are allowed on the island’s extensive network of mini-roadways, which wind through the protected maritime forests and dune fields. Bald Head is a private island, developed with the goal of preserving the barrier island geomorphology and associated ecosystems. Even though the island is private, it is open to the public for nominal fees to park and ride the ferry, utilize the 42 public-beach access areas, to participate in programs sponsored by Bald Head Island Conservancy and to enjoy the thousands of acres of land that the conservancy oversees.

Using Bald Head Island as an example of more-sustainable management, imagine what new and innovative adaptations could be carried out within other developed beach communities of North Carolina. By determining levels of vulnerability through detailed geomorphic (topographic) and ecosystem mapping, communities can begin to develop adaptation policies and management programs to maintain viable and sustainable economic development. Below is a series of concepts based on the scientific data concerning the known origin and evolutionary processes operating within the North Carolina coastal system. The actual mechanisms for evaluating or implementing these or other adaptive management concepts should become part of policy debates carried out by the public, state and federal agencies and elected officials. Many of the concepts involve the development of new paradigms associated with critical issues, such as land rights, ownership, takings, mitigation, acquisition and zoning. As geologists, we cannot resolve the policy issues, but we can help to frame the problems and suggest possibilities based on science. Some of these ideas might work if the prickly legal and political issues can be dealt with before the coast is struck by a severe hurricane, resulting in a dire crisis. Some of these ideas might prove to be unfeasible, but they are included to encourage discussion. The alternative is to ignore the reality of change and allow our natural-resource-based coastal economy to be destroyed by the inevitable sea-level rise and catastrophic storms.

• A regional evaluation of the developed barrier islands could be undertaken to assess long-term usability of each island. Detailed geomorphic and ecosystem maps could be produced for each barrier island that would provide the basis for developing short- and long-term adaptation strategies. Drawing on these maps, along with the known evolutionary history of the coast, an informed understanding of the processes of storm and sea-level change, and an evaluation of potential sand sources, coastal managers could develop usability maps for each barrier island segment and the adjacent inlets to replace the present concept of ocean- and inlet-hazard zones. Based on the new maps, each island segment could be assessed for specific land utilization designed to minimize the direct impact of storms on the economy, to enhance the short-term health of the barrier island and long-term evolution of the coastal system.

• Recognizing that not all islands have the same characteristics, we can identify some as perhaps suitable for efforts to “hold the shoreline” and to sustain a high level of development. Some islands may only be able to support limited development, while others may not be able to support any development. The amount and types of development would depend on island geomorphology and economic viability of beach nourishment. There may be islands and island segments that are best suited to various kinds of day use; others could become parks, nature preserves or wildlife refuges.

• All future development should be in harmony with an island’s geomorphology and ecology. Development should proceed with minimum disturbance to maritime forests, back-barrier dune fields and other natural components of the environment since these features decrease the risk of the destructive impact of storms on the human-built environment. For example, native vegetation that is adapted to coastal environments should be utilized in landscaping to minimize both the effects of saltwater on vegetation and the dependence on freshwater for irrigation.

• Based on the geomorphology, evolutionary history and net vulnerability, a rolling buffer zone could be defined. The buffer zone could be common ground owned by the community and utilized for preservation of the beach and for tourism. As the shoreline naturally recedes with time, the buffer zone could roll landward, through the acquisition of land by the community or a government agency, from the ocean side of coastal lots and could thus maintain a constant buffer-zone width. Building lots along the oceanfront and inlets could be deep, shore-perpendicular properties whose size would depend on the shoreline’s vulnerability (judged in light of the island’s geomorphology, evolutionary history and historical rates of shoreline recession and/or extent of inlet migration).

• Houses and small commercial structures immediately landward of the rolling buffer zone could be raised high enough off the ground to allow for storm-surge overwash and sediment accretion. This would minimize storm damage and allow the natural processes of island building and migration to take place. In addition, the structures could be moved landward within the deep lots in response to island recession and/or inlet migration. The location of large commercial structures, such as high-rise hotels and condominiums, could be restricted to the back side of complex islands or to the adjacent mainland behind simple barrier islands.

• Some owners of land behind the rolling buffer zone or in the vulnerable locations where new inlets are most likely to occur could consider a wide range of alternative uses. Utilize some of the property for small, ocean-front businesses such as bathhouses, parking lots, fishing piers, concession stands, surf and kayak rental shops, and bait-and-tackle shops. Develop specific areas, particularly around the inlets, into natural areas, coastal parks or wildlife preserves with educational programs that would include hiking trails, museums and community-instructional programs. Expand the rolling buffer zone through government, community or private-organization buyout programs.

• Portions of shore-parallel roads buried by overwash sand during storms could be left unpaved to build island elevation. Portable metal ramping could be utilized across the overwash fans after the storms. Shore-perpendicular roads could be staggered to minimize flood conduits, and some could be maintained as sand roads.

• Low supra-tidal zones and marshes on the sound sides of barrier islands could be protected to allow for natural island evolution. A similar strategy could be used for low-lying environments on the mainland coasts. The wetland systems, critical for fisheries and water quality, could continue to be used for educational purposes, research and ecotourism.

• Old bridges that have become unsafe are extremely expensive to replace. Not replacing some is an option that should be thoroughly researched and discussed. If it is determined that a bridge should not be replaced, a system involving parking lots on the mainland and a water-taxi or ferry service to the island, similar to that of Bald Head Island and Cape Lookout National Seashore, could be developed.


Coastal tourism in North Carolina is growing at a rapid rate, offsetting some of the economic loss from the decline of the textile, tobacco and furniture-making industries. In 2009, tourism in the 20 North Carolina coastal counties brought in about $2.5 billion, 85% of which was associated with the barrier islands. Most of the inner coastal counties are rural and among North Carolina’s poorest, often hampered by declining populations, particularly among younger age groups. It is difficult for these rural counties to bring in new industries or to attract good teachers for their schools. Many small towns are empty shells of their past, farms are declining and commercial fisheries are failing. Estuarine water quality is deteriorating, the shorelines are severely eroding and vast low-lying land areas along the shorelines are threatened by increasing sea-level rise and saltwater encroachment.

The Land of Water coastal system of northeastern North Carolina includes the huge drowned-river estuarine system with its far-reaching shorelines, vast marsh and swamp forest wetlands, mysterious inland pocosin swamps and Carolina bays and the incredible system of black-water streams. The natural resources that constitute this Land of Water can play an increasingly important role in the tourist economy, a role that would revitalize the region. North Carolina’s rivers, estuaries and barrier islands constitute an intimately integrated system of water that can form a new paradigm. This paradigm would build on the natural and human history and the dynamic coastal resources of northeastern North Carolina within an overarching and integrated umbrella program for sustainable, water-based ecotourism.

One of the goals of the Land of Water program would be to develop a cohesive scientific and sociological story detailing the origin and evolution of the northeastern North Carolina coastal system and history of its inhabitants. This would promote an understanding of climate change, sea-level rise, storm dynamics and the role of water, all of which control the changes in coastal habitats, ecosystem evolution and migration, and shoreline erosion. A principal element of this story would be the intertwined relationship of natural processes with the history of human habitation.

One possible vehicle for realizing the Land of Water vision could be a new coastal trail system. This would not be a trail like the Mountains to the Sea Trail, the Civil War Trail or the Highway 17 Corridor. Rather, it would be an organizational umbrella that incorporates and builds on all pre-existing trail programs and integrates them within a single concept — with the common thread of water. The Land of Water coastal trail program, a “park without boundaries,” must start as a grassroots movement with the primary goal of coordinating activities and educating local groups about the potential benefits of the program. A key focus would be on the citizens of northeastern North Carolina, stakeholders who control pertinent land holdings and relevant businesses, as well as key regional, state and federal agencies and politicians. In order for the Land of Water coastal trail to become attractive to tourists, other critical components would have to be developed by local business communities, including appropriate infrastructure (motels, bed and breakfast facilities, restaurants, service stations, equipment rentals, guide services, water taxis, etc.) and recreational opportunities (hunting, fishing, kayaking, birding, camping, hiking, biking, etc.).

The Land of Water coastal trail would focus on the faunal and floral communities, geomorphic features, geologic-biologic processes, cultural history, the origin and evolutionary development of the coastal system, as well as the major conflicts between natural dynamics and human utilization. The coastal trail would be an integrated land, sea and air-trail system of ecotourism based on sustainable economic growth and development. The trail system could focus on attracting specialty tourists from around the world who have an interest in such matters as history, geology, ecology, boat building and archaeology.

The Land of Water coastal trail system for northeastern North Carolina could fit well into the U.S. National Park Service’s National Trail System. Much of the land is already in the public domain, and a number of agencies present in northeastern North Carolina could partner with the proposed program. Some of these include: Four national seashores and historical parks run by the U.S. National Park Service; 10 national wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; one national forest maintained by the U.S. Forest Service; 10 North Carolina state parks and historic sites; approximately 2 million acres of game lands overseen by the N.C. Wildlife Service; approximately 300 boat ramps maintained by the N.C. Wildlife Service, the North Carolina Aquariums, the North Carolina Estuarium, Estuarine Reserves and numerous museums; and coastal highways, bridges and ferries maintained or operated by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Education would be a main feature of the Land of Water program. The new paradigm, based on dynamic environmental change of a comprehensive water-based system, would become the framework for the interdisciplinary educational component. Education by itself is crucial for human society, but hands-on, interdisciplinary education within a system as spectacular as the Land of Water can also be very good business. This umbrella program would be integrated into existing educational entities including schools (kindergarten through 12th grades, community colleges and universities), museums, aquariums, regional foundations, centers and land conservancies. The Land of Water program would interpret, educate and present the important stories of the past, present and future of water, sea-level rise, storms and especially the interactions of our coastal environment with its inhabitants.


There will always be a coastal system with ocean and estuarine shorelines, but the coast is a dynamic and moving system that we must adapt to. Trying to maintain the status quo through engineering fixed structures and ignoring the natural limits to growth will ultimately cause the collapse of both the economy and the natural resources on which it is based. The 21st century is an exciting time with tremendous opportunity for the state’s coast. Determining new ways of living in concert with a changing coastal system of shifting sand, high-energy storms and a rising sea level is a challenge we should embrace. An informed set of responses to future natural environmental change could lead to an economic renaissance that would have more potential payoff in a changing climate.

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