A dispassionate look at the reality of barrier islands

By on March 31, 2013

battleThere is no denying our choice to live on barrier islands places us at odds with nature.

Like Holland’s lowlands or Venice’s island/canal world, our geological existence has been but a wink in the eye of time.

Whether man’s engineering feats, be they windmills and dikes, flood gates and canals, or replacing sand on the beach, can succeed or even be contemplated should be the true center of debate as we plan our future.

Instead, opponents of attempting hold back the forces of nature most often frame the argument in terms of class warfare.

Those who directly benefit from the beach — the “rich folks” who own the homes and businesses near the oceanfront — are pitted against everyday residents.

Proponents of manmade intervention can be just as stubborn. They ignore data indicating rising seas or climate change, while  failing to realize that the present form of the northern Outer Banks is barely 500 years old.

Proponents would rather debate whether man or nature is causing climate change, an argument that sadly breaks down all too often along partisan lines.

Enter a refreshing change in the dialog about our present and future.

In 2011, Stanley Riggs and three colleagues, Dorothea V. Ames, Stephen J. Culver, and David Mallison published “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis & Vision for the Future.”

Riggs is a geologist and distinguished research professor, heading up a research program at East Carolina University that draws support from the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and UNC-Chapel Hill.

Unlike another well-known scientist who often weighs in on coastal issues, Orrin Pilkey of Duke University, Riggs avoids the intellectual low road of pitting property owners against one another.

Riggs also avoids Pilkey’s naïve comprehension of economics (if your oceanfront hot dog stand is taken by the sea, just move it across the road, says he) and business practices.

Finally, Riggs uses data from our past and present about climatic conditions without getting into the middle of whether such changes are natural or man-caused processes.

The authors of “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast,” left to right, Stanley Riggs, Dorothea Ames, Stephen Culver, and David Mallinson, all of the Department of Geological Sciences. (Cliff Hollis)

The authors of “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast,” left to right, Stanley Riggs, Dorothea Ames, Stephen Culver, and David Mallinson, all of the Department of Geological Sciences. (Cliff Hollis)

The “Battle for North Carolina’s Coast” is a relatively quick read. There are barely 100 pages of actual text, and those are filled with numerous graphs and pictures, reducing the amount of prose even more significantly.

To understand our present crisis and aid our future planning, Riggs et al spend considerable time on our geological and climatic past.

Our past includes more than 23 periods of time over the course of one million years where glaciers have advanced and retreated, greatly altering our coastal shoreline.

Our barrier islands are in the approximate middle of where the Atlantic Ocean has waxed and waned. Our mainland has extended as much as 30 to 60 miles eastward, with barrier islands moving eastward along the continental shelf.

Other times, when glaciers retreat, can bring the oceanfront closer to the present mainland, with barrier islands moving landward as the waters advance.

Interspersed with these long-term geological changes are short-term changes involving the powerful storms that regularly visit our shores.

Riggs tracks, as much as current data allows, the cycle of hurricanes and nor’easters going back about 300 years, with more reliable data from the late 19th century forward.

It is these storm cycles, which also seem to wax and wane in frequency and power along regular cycles, that can alter the islands’ profiles radically over short periods of time.

Finally, Riggs takes us through the history of the islands since Europeans first visited about 500 years ago and demonstrates how current changes appear to be altering the islands at a more rapid pace, similar to the way our current configuration appeared 500 years ago.

He notes how inlets and the width of islands have changed significantly, coming and going, moving westward and southward in just that short period of time.

Tying the two geological and climatic cycles together, Riggs notes we are experiencing both an increase in storm frequency as well as evidence of rising sea levels that might herald the start of another global warming cycle over the (very) long term.

The book then describes the two types of barrier islands that compose our outer shoreline. Some of the islands Riggs calls “simple.” These are narrow strips of land without much underlying superstructure and therefore very susceptible to change by storm systems.

Other islands and parts of simple islands are classified as complex. These islands have a different substrata, are significantly wider, higher in elevation and feature westward dune lines.

Riggs proposes different future courses of action for the two systems.

South of Oregon Inlet, Riggs states the mostly simple structure of Pea Island and other parts of Hatteras are no longer worth saving. The lifeline of those villages, N.C. 12, can no longer be moved westward in many places.

New inlets will continue to open, Riggs feels, and building one new bridge, such as the span over the new inlet created by Irene, doesn’t preclude other inlets opening up just “down the road.”

Riggs acknowledges that the option to replace the Bonner Bridge with a long span from South Nags Head to Rodanthe, leaving Pea Island to Mother Nature, is one possibility, albeit very expensive.

As an alternative, Riggs proposes “A String of Pearls” with population centers focusing on the more complex substructures supporting Rodanthe/Salvo/Waves, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras villages.

The islands could be served by high-speed ferries, private charter boats and other methods, including mainland parking lots where cars would be left and only people would be transported to these locales.

Some smaller islands might evolve into sparsely populated luxury resorts, eco-tourism sites or primitive camping areas, while the main villages would take on a character and economy similar to Ocracoke Island.

He envisions “world-class ecotourism” destinations similar to those adopted in other areas of the world.

Along our northern beaches, Riggs acknowledges that development has made these economies more similar to larger coastal resorts.

He calls these areas “Islands of Opportunity” and even states some areas might benefit from “holding the shoreline.”

Even so, Riggs sees sea-level rise and increasing storm cycles as very real threats between now and the turn of the next century.

He believes the political and economic discussions for the next generation should entail considerable planning and attention to detail regarding our underlying shoreline framework and requires detailed adaption policies in our planning.

He also advises creation of rolling buffer zones that would call for buildings on pilings to allow storm water to pass and even feed the west side of the islands.

In the past, before the shoreline dunes were built during the New Deal era, the barrier islands did not suffer from erosion. Instead, overwash fans on the western shore replaced what was lost along the eastern shore.

While allowing the development we now see along U.S. 158, the lack of regular overwash has created the erosion problems we now face.

Thus, Riggs looks at a plethora of options for complex island systems. Each island would use scientific data based on past data to determine how to adapt each area to its particular geo-morphology.

Some roads adjacent to the ocean could be left unpaved to allow elevations to increase. Areas such as Whalebone may wish allow inlets to form and create bridges to span the new openings.

Riggs cites Bald Head Island, where access is restricted to ferry or private boats, complete with mainland baggage handling facilities and parking lots for cars, which cannot be brought to the island, as one example of a complex island that has adapted to its geological circumstances.

The book offers no panacea, and Riggs and his co-authors freely admit their ideas may not be accepted as economically, politically or even technologically acceptable.

But his ideas are worth bringing into our present discussions. The year 2100 is less than two generations away. Thinking only about the short-term has been a constant human failing.

This book deserves a read by all coastal residents, including those residing along our past (and perhaps future) shoreline in Elizabeth City, New Bern and other towns.

The book is available at many local bookstores and digitally from online booksellers.

The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast; Stanley R. Riggs, Dorthea V. Ames, Stephen J. Culver, David J. Mallinson, 2011, University of North Carolina Press. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3486-2.

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April 5, 2013 12:04 am

Hello everyone in this discussion – please read my comments and ideas about Kitty Hawk beach erosion plans in this other thread and tell me if you think I’m certifiably insane:


For Russ A: I’ve lived here about 4 years, been coming here for pleasure and biz for about 40 years, so I know these islands pretty well. I also know Tidewater very well, including all of the rivers up in that area. When I moved here, I took advantage of the downturn in the market and went on a 1-year search-and-destroy mission for the highest/safest/most-secluded building lot I could find. I got lucky and found a great one – let’s just say that if it ever floods, the entire main island of Kitty Hawk will be under water so it really won’t matter after that. Anyway, it just broke my heart to see all those families lose so much after Irene – it seemed like day-after-day as I drove back and forth down Kitty Hawk Road, I’d see a new pile of waterlogged possessions on the street in front of someone’s home…so sad. I especially remember this one older lady – don’t know her name – but she lived on the corner near the new skate park. A white-haired older woman, probably late 70′s but always outside on her riding mower tending to her beautiful gardens and crepe myrtles…and then a week later the house was bulldozed as it was right next to a creek. My point is – I hear you, and I’d also like to add that from my short experience living here I think the over-arching reason residents don’t want to change/move/improve is because they are human and, generally, once human beings get comfortable, they don’t like change. I really don’t think it has anything to do with partisanism at all…I think it’s usually just pure human nature. I think the partisanism comes out when people start getting their feelings hurt, just like a lot of other bad things come out during those times – from all of us. And the balance of the pushback, well I guess Duke Starco hits the nail on the head there: financial fallout.

This is a good, healthy conversation you guys and gals are having here – thanks for the good opinions, made my day. I need to get that book!

Good night all and I hope it doesn’t rain all weekend – then again, my lettuce is coming up nicely. :)

Russ Lay

April 4, 2013 9:05 pm

Ray: Yes, I get why you like him. Your comments on Riggs, however, are nothing more than surmising and connecting dots that may or may not be there.


April 3, 2013 5:36 pm

That’s why I like Pilkey, Russ. He sticks to his guns. What’s wrong with repeating yourself when what you say is correct? And, didn’t Pilkey predict exactly where the breaches would be on HI? Pilky’s no dummy. He just doesn’t sing the tune that private enterprise wants to hear. And, I like Riggs a lot too..but Riggs, being employed by a state institution knows where to hold the line, politically. To the contrary, Pilkey doesn’t have to worry about that. Get it?

Russ Lay

April 2, 2013 11:27 pm

Duke: Read the book first. It doesn’t call for anyone to move off barrier islands and it draws a distinction between the islands here on the north end and the thinner, ribbon-like barrier islands.

Jon: I’d love to see several vendors along the Beach Road! Seriously, I’ve read, re-read, and looked at Pilkey quotes going back as far as 1985. He’s definitely talking about the old-style burger/hot dog hut, not a portable stand. One thing I noticed in researching this article is how often he self-promotes.

In 1985 there was a slew of interviews and op-ed pieces on national networks, the NY Times, NPR, PBS where Pilkey said, over and over “It’s time for Americans to retreat from their beaches.”

After Sandy, Pilkey pops up in almost the exact same venues and says “It’s time for Americans to retreat from their beaches.”

Google searching him is like listening to an old LP needle stuck on the same phrase—for 30+ years.

Russ A

April 2, 2013 8:48 am

I am a fairly new property owner and resident in SS but have been vacationing here for over twenty years. I believe that there is a definite schism here that will be hard to repair. Living on the Outer Banks is a privilege that I take seriously and I believe others do too. It is obvious to me that some of the land can not be saved no matter how hard we try. We can pour millions into replenishment, temporary bridges, or moving roads but in the long run it will not stop the sea. Both sides have valid points so how do we move forward.


April 1, 2013 8:19 pm

Russ, I read Dr. Pilkey differently: a hot dog stand is easily able to move; a brick & mortar restaurant not so. Either one can feed tourists just about the same–actually street vendors are quite a lot more convenient. Isn’t it ironic that most of the towns would ban them?

I’d like an ice cream vendor at the Bonnett St. access :D

Duke Starco

April 1, 2013 5:08 pm

Well Russ, Are you planning on moving off the barrier island? Right. No one is willing to give up there largest investment. Maybe 20 years ago I should have given more thought to relocating here but I can’t go backwards. There is so much so called science out there I do not know what to believe. I do know that I am hesitant to believe much of what comes out of academia. They always seem to have an agenda. In the back of my mind what I truly believe is there must be some technology out there to stop the erosion that we haven’t used yet. I trust someone has the answer but either politically or environmentally is being stopped. Whether it is jetties, off shore breakwater, a sand recycling system or something similar we are being stopped from exploring it.Usually it is to save a bird, a turtle or a mole crab. I love the free and natural beaches and the open wooded areas as much as anyone and we have no shortage. As I have said many times, the natural areas are there but not as convenient to get to. If you take a 15 minute ride over the Bonner Bridge you have 17 miles of open beach. It is just that it is not in KDH so everyone complains that we are overbuilt. The natural beaches have no snack bars or restrooms so are rarely crowded. I am hoping that a solution is found in my lifetime and I will continue to question the Riggs’ and Pilkey’s of the world.

Russ Lay

April 1, 2013 12:16 pm

Robbin: From reading most of Dr. Pilkey’s books I find he constantly strays from science and states, without reservation, economic positions that he does not defend. He merely states them as fact.

One of the first quotes I ever read from Dr. Pilkey was how, if an oceanfront hot dog stand was taken by the sea, it would simply “move across the road.” Anyone who owns a business knows it is simply not that easy.

Likewise, many of Pilkey’s books discuss the fact that ocean front property owners are the primary beneficiaries of nourishment without giving so much as a nod to the fact that a wide beach delivers benefits to the entire community.

Dr. Rigg’s book not only avoids making matter-of-fact economic claims (in fact, he freely admits many of his ideas may not be economically or politically feasible), he also does not set up any “us against them” arguments between oceanfront property owners and the rest of the community.

More discussions along Dr. Rigg’s approach-here’s the science, here are some areas we might compromise between engineering and retreat, and here is a vision of what might be possible in the face of scientific evidence makes for a logical discussion that is not possible under Pilkey’s approach, in my opinion.

Robbin Banxs

April 1, 2013 10:53 am

Why do you feel the need to bash Orrin Pilkey?Doing so not only does a disservice to Dr. Riggs and his colleagues and detracts from this otherwise positive review, but it illustrates how partisan you really are when it comes to coastal development/management issues.

Think what you want about him, but Pilkey DOES understand the political and economic realities of the NC coast which, by the way, would almost certainly look a lot more like Myrtle Beach or Virginia Beach if he wasn’t around to protect what some Outer Bankers seem to forget is a public trust resource managed by the state for all North Carolinians.


April 1, 2013 9:16 am

It has been painfully clear for some time that most residents and lovers of Hatteras Island believe they know,far better,what is best for the island than anyone else in NC or the USA, and it’s also clear to this writer that it’s time for them to incorporate their villages and take more control over their communities and start bearing more of the financial burden it takes to maintain whatever lifestyle it is they’re trying to protect. Are they willing to do that? I doubt it.

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