There’s a “disaster” approaching North Carolina’s coast, and it’s not a hurricane. It’s an increasingly encroaching sea, Orrin Pilkey says.
An award-winning Duke University professor emeritus of geology, who is also the founder and director emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, Pilkey doesn’t mince words when it comes to sea level rise.
“These beaches are doomed,” Pilkey has said, multiple times — most recently in The Washington Post and in an interview with The News & Observer. “The buildings are doomed, too.”
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Rising sea levels will likely prove the first global calamity from climate change, Pilkey told The News & Observer. Climate scientists view sea level rise as one of the most obvious signals of a warming planet.
Sea level rise is an imminent threat to North Carolina’s 18 barrier islands — the Outer Banks — and the area just behind, the Inner Banks, which could be two of the most devastated areas, Pilkey said.
Parts of the world are seeing sea levels rise far beyond average, and it’s just a matter of time before some areas are overwhelmed with sea water, studies show.
The East Coast of the U.S. is experiencing “sunny day flooding” that scientists didn’t expect for decades.
Sea levels are rising at a rate of about an inch per year (5 inches from 2011-15) in some areas along the East Coast, from North Carolina to Florida, according to one study — that’s faster than researchers expected.
The solution, Pilkey said, is to move inland.
“Except for timing, there is no controversy among scientists regarding the rise in sea levels,” Pilkey said. “We need to plan now for retreat.”
There are “slight differences” to the degree of sea level rise different parts of North Carolina are experiencing, but it’s happening “virtually everywhere, and it’s accelerating,” Pilkey said.
To those who say the coast is always changing, and that sea level rise is not happening, or is not a significant threat, Pilkey says, “You’ve got to learn about tidal flooding.”
Residents of coastal communities most often feel the effects of sea level rise during increasingly frequent and worsening tidal flooding, major storms and when large swathes of beach are eroded away and require renourishment.
The costly effort of dredging sand from the bottom of the ocean and piling it onto beaches in an attempt to rebuild North Carolina’s — or any state’s — coastline has been the preferred solution to maintaining the shoreline and protecting coastal properties for generations. But it’s needed more and more, Pilkey said. And “it’s an exercise in futility.”
“You’re holding shoreline where it doesn’t want to be,” he said.
Nags Head beaches in Dare County are eroding at a rate of about 6 feet per year, according to the N.C. Division of Coastal Management.
The town of Nags Head is “spending $48 million — and raising taxes for property owners — dredging sand from the sea floor and pumping it onto beaches,” The Washington Post reported.
Some areas of beach, including near the Bodie Island Lighthouse, are eroding at rates of nearly 10 feet per year, according to NCDCM.
There is constant flux for many parts of North Carolina’s beaches, and barrier islands naturally migrate, but renourished beaches disappear “at least two times faster than natural beaches,” Pilkey said.
As sea levels rise, more beaches likely will be nourished.
“I think the time will come when the public will no longer be willing to pay for this,” Pilkey said.
“There’s already the attitude of ‘I wasn’t dumb enough to build a house right next to the beach, why should I pay for it?’”
Measures can be taken to mitigate storm damage — such as construction and setback regulations, updating flood plain maps, buying out storm-damaged properties, and raising buildings up on stilts — but those efforts will not address the permanent effects of expected sea level rise, Pilkey said.
Continued construction on or near replenished beaches is “sheer madness,” he said, since it puts more structures in threatened areas and can contribute to erosion.
Even buildings on higher elevations are in danger, if infrastructure such as roads are chronically flooded by increasing sea level rise, Pilkey said. And in the event of storms, evacuation of at-risk areas will be increasingly difficult.
The solution is for residents of these threatened areas to move inland, he said.
“If my parents were to ask me where to buy a house in North Carolina, I would tell them to stick to the mainland,” Pilkey said. “People living there now should be taking a long view.”