Sean Becketti, chief economist for Freddie Mac, was quoted recently noting that, “It is only a matter of time before sea-level rise and storm surges become so unbearable that people will leave, ditching their mortgages …”
I believe that Becketti is right, and that within 50 years, a great part of our islands, especially the low, narrow Outer Banks, on a very gently sloping land surface, will become largely uninhabitable. The anticipated 3-foot sea level rise by 2100 will mark the end of development of any kind on our barrier islands.
A 6-foot sea level rise by 2100 is a genuine possibility, in light of observed increased melting of the world’s ice sheets and Arctic sea ice. If this happens or when this happens, our islands will be long broken sandbars covered with debris from smashed buildings.
In spite of these prospects, the beat goes on. The state is doing what I like to characterize as “tiptoeing thru the tulips,” oblivious to the world around it. But the world doesn’t work that way.
For example, $956 million of state and federal money is planned for three new bridges (mid-Currituck, interim Pea Island, Rodanthe) and two replacement bridges (Oregon Inlet and Topsail Island). Throwing in the $50 million that has been spent on 17 Pea Island beach nourishment projects (solely to protect access to Highway12 for communities to the south), and the total to preserve the status quo comes to a billion dollars. But the status quo is no longer preservable.
The state’s drift into a disaster has been a long time coming. In 1985, the state of North Carolina outlawed seawalls on open ocean shorelines, a truly pioneering recognition of the fact that walls eventually destroy beaches. As a modest compromise, temporary sandbag seawalls were allowed in order to provide time for a threatened building to be moved back, with a two-year limit allowed for the wall. Since then, the sandbag rule has deteriorated, even though we now know that sandbag seawalls destroy beaches just like concrete seawalls do. Today, sandbags have been in place for a decade or more on some of our beaches. What happened to the two-year limit?
Recently the state legislature, apparently uneducated about the ways of beaches, was toying with the idea of allowing sandbag seawalls to be placed on undeveloped properties. This of course, would eventually lead to building seawalls covering entire island oceanfront of islands, and we would be right back to the New Jersey story of massive beach loss in front of walls.
The Coastal Resources Commission has recently granted a variance to both Oak Island and Carolina Beach allowing the development line to move forward. The reason given is that because the beach is nourished, new land has formed and it is therefore OK to place buildings closer to the water. The planner from Oak Island said that “a lot of previously undevelopable oceanfront lots will now be developable.” That’s the last thing we need on the North Carolina shore.
It’s a fool’s errand to extend development seaward because of a nourished beach. These artificial beaches typically erode at least twice as fast as natural beaches and sometimes 5 to 10 times as fast. The future of nourishment on a given beach is subject to the winds of politics and as the sea rises, nourished beaches will certainly disappear even faster and it will cost more to continue replenishing them.
If anything, a community that uses tax money to nourish a beach should be required to allow only the construction of movable single family homes thereafter – no high rises, no condos. We don’t want to become a Florida with miles and miles of high rises along beaches leaving no reasonable way to respond to sea-level rise and preserve beaches at the same time.
The state has permitted 21 new beachfront homes on Sunset Beach, a move being fought by island residents. Theirs is an island community that has taken pride in its effort to maintain a wide strip of land between the water and the first row of houses.
Now is no longer the time to build more bridges, allow more sandbag seawalls, move the development line forward after beach nourishment or to allow more beachfront houses to be constructed. Now is the time for the state to begin realistic planning for the long haul – to look beyond the 30-year span of sea-level rise that now governs North Carolina coastal management.
The situation with the rising sea is immediate enough that it would be foolish for anyone under 50 to buy a near-beach house and expect to use it for the rest of their lives. It would be another fool’s errand (at any age) to buy such a house today with the intention of giving it to children or grandchildren.
Orrin Pilkey is co-author of the book“Retreat from a Rising Sea”and James B. Duke professor emeritus at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.