Hard facts and hard heads on the Outer Banks

First Posted: 4/8/2013

Every week we read another news story about access to our coastal islands.

Last year Hurricane Sandy and two other storms pushed water across Highway 12, cutting the road to shreds one more time.

The channel across Hatteras Inlet filled up, forcing the ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke to close down.

Bonner Bridge, which crosses Oregon Inlet and connects Hatteras Island to the mainland, was closed for repairs. As the Oregon Inlet moves southward, the bridge’s support system is washing away.

Planned ferry toll increases will penalize island residents and working people who will be denied the kind of access from their homes that other North Carolinians take for granted.

When is all this uncertainty going to end?

Never, according to retired East Carolina University Geology Professor Stanley Riggs, unless North Carolina’s decision-makers come to grips with certain facts about the long-term future of our barrier islands and other coastal areas.

Riggs and his co-authors lay out their version of these facts in their book, “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis, and Vision for the Future.”

Their book explains some of the complex factors that operate in coastal zones where water and land meet. Although the science may be complicated, its application to North Carolina has simple, easy to understand lessons as Riggs explained for his publisher, UNC Press: “Shoreline erosion is the direct product of long-term sea-level rise, which has been ongoing for the past 18,000 years. As the Earth’s climate warms, the vast continental ice sheets melt and recede. Waters flow back into the world’s oceans, causing the sea level to rise. In response, the mobile coastal system has had a long journey migrating upward and landward from its starting point on the continental slope, about 410 feet below and up to 60 miles east of its present location. This history will continue as long as our climate continues to warm. To maintain a viable coastal economy and preserve the natural resources upon which that economy is dependent, the public, our managers, and politicians must understand and adapt to the natural dynamics of change on a mobile coastal system. The present approach of unlimited economic growth and development will result in ever-increasing conflicts and catastrophes.”

Using a host of maps and other illustrations, Riggs projects the short-term future of the Outer Banks. One or two major storms could lead to the collapse or disintegration of portions of the barrier islands, most likely where there has already been severe island narrowing.

So, is Riggs, like some other scientists, proposing that all people simply move away from the Outer Banks and let nature take its course?

Not exactly. Riggs does favor discontinuing the efforts to maintain most of Highway 12 and abandoning plans to repair the old Bonner Bridge or build a new one. Because Highway 12 is doomed, he thinks extraordinary efforts to preserve it should end.

But he also suggests a system of sustainable tourism based on an understanding of a changing shoreline. In place of Highway 12 and the Bonner Bridge would be a system of small ferries that would serve communities on Hatteras, Ocracoke, and other parts of the Outer Banks that prove to be stable enough to survive indefinitely.

Riggs’s suggestions for action may be more moderate than those of others. But they sound radical to the tough Outer Banks residents who have proved over and over again for centuries that they will fight hard to keep anybody and any ocean from taking away what little they have.

— D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch.” During UNC-TV’s Festival, the program airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.