Preparing the NC coast for rising seas

Rows of houses near the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, along the Atlantic coast in Corolla, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Rows of houses near the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, along the Atlantic coast in Corolla, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 2002 Charlotte Observer file photo

The allure of North Carolina’s picturesque and wild coastline is undeniable, with residents “stuck here on purpose” and visitors coming back year after year. That is one reason I am raising my family on the Outer Banks. I value giving my children the same opportunities I had for surfing, fishing and just enjoying nature when I was their age.

As our coastal communities grapple with the growing challenges of flooding and sea-level rise, we can turn to what makes us so special for part of the solution – nature. Natural ecosystems like salt marshes, oyster reefs and coastal forests can help mitigate flood risks for communities while providing other benefits like improved water quality, enhanced recreational opportunities and fish and wildlife habitat, all of which enrich local economies. They also absorb energy from wind and waves, reducing the erosive forces reaching our shores. Restoring and protecting these natural habitats combined with other natural solutions such as living shorelines can provide enduring benefits to both our coastal communities and the environment. Maintaining the functionality and absorptive capacity that our floodplains provide is a key to our future resilience at the coast.

In coastal North Carolina, we have an advantage over other East Coast states with expansive coastlines. We don’t have huge cities like Miami sitting on our coast, meaning we have an opportunity to work toward increasing our resiliency by expanding these natural solutions. And people can still enjoy what makes our coast so special. Fishermen and hunters can continue to make their livelihoods from our marshes, creeks and estuaries as they have done for centuries. And families like mine can continue to enjoy the beach and sounds. Natural solutions should be part of our portfolio to help keep our coast vibrant in the face of climate change.

To help communities visualize their coastal hazard risks and options for natural solutions that can improve their resiliency, The Nature Conservancy has been working with federal, state and local partners to develop a web-based decision support tool for coastal North Carolina. The Coastal Resilience tool allows community planners to create maps based on a North Carolina’s state-commissioned flood and sea-level rise data to identify areas in their community most at risk to flooding now and into the future. It also shows planners the value of protecting open space through FEMA’s Community Rating System which provides discounts on flood insurance based on activities like protecting natural floodplains that reduce flood risk for communities. Planners looking to protect their shores from erosion can use the living shorelines application to pinpoint areas suitable for this technique.

Some communities are going even further by identifying and filling gaps in information in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. While the data that drives the tool is derived by partner research, sometimes new data is necessary for communities to better understand their risk. Currituck County officials wanted to identify areas of the county that are particularly vulnerable to flooding from rainfall. So, The Nature Conservancy helped the county complete a successful grant application to fund a study which will be fed into the tool and give county planners an idea about what areas are more likely to be flooded because of rainfall – even events that aren’t related to a hurricane.

Warming waters, sea-level rise and changes in weather patterns driven by climate change are already affecting our coast. Characteristically low-lying and surrounded by our productive rivers and estuaries, coastal communities are now regularly facing challenges from large downpours and sunny day flooding in addition to those posed by nor’easters and tropical cyclones. Often as a result of these events business is disrupted and tourists are temporarily barred from our shores, both of which affect our coastal economy. The Nature Conservancy is continuing to work with North Carolina local communities, governments, the private sector and academic partners to find innovative, on-the-ground solutions so that nature and people can thrive together.

Coastal North Carolina is facing some big challenges, but it’s a special place with unique opportunities to further harness the value of our natural systems.

Brian Boutin is the director of the Albemarle-Pamlico Sounds Program for the North Carolina chapter of The Nature Conservancy and lives on the Outer Banks.