By Emmy Benton

Could you ever imagine your house falling into the ocean?

Emmy Benton, from Kitty Hawk, NC explores how climate change is tied to homes on the oceans edge that make up her community. Benton speaks to scientists about what Outer Banks residents can expect over the next 20 years – and the power that locals do hold amidst impacts.

It’s become an increasing occurrence on the Outer Banks that leaves many to wonder: What can be done to prevent this unfortunate sight?

The beach is disappearing at alarmingly fast rates, in part because of sea level rise. 

Emmy Benton

The 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that in the next 30 years, the sea level is expected to rise 10 to 14 inches on the East Coast. That prediction is the same amount of sea level rise that was measured over the past 100 years. 

Sea level rise coupled with beach erosion can have significant consequences on coastal communities such as Rodanthe, the state’s easternmost community in Dare County.

“In that area of the seashore, we’ve measured erosion rates up to four meters per year,” said David Hallac, the superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina. “And of course, there’s more than three feet in a meter, so you’re talking about 10- to 12-, 13-feet of the beach, disappearing every single year.”

Hallac says the shore shows no sign of that rate subsiding any time soon. 

Climate change has been discussed for decades but is just recently coming to the forefront of today’s top concerns, especially here on the Outer Banks. 

YouTube video

Several houses on the Outer Banks collapsed after an offshore storm on May 10, 2022. Source: Video was taken by the Cape Hatteras National Seashore section of the National Park Service

Hallac believes that beach erosion, sea level rise and flooding are all major concerns that need to be addressed and planned for. A gauge to measure sea-level rise at the U.S. Coast Guard Station Oregon Inlet shows that over the past 30 years, the sea level has risen 5.3 millimeters per year. This means that over a 100-year time frame, the sea rises about 1.75 feet. This amount of sea-level rise along with erosion is a worry for many, but especially for Hallac. 

“When you combine things like a really high rate of erosion with another foot, approximately of sea level rise, and then you think about this third factor, which is the frequency and intensity of storms, there is definitely a reason for concern,” Hallac said. 

Hallac thinks that taking steps to prepare and lessen the effects of climate change will be in our best interests. 

“The concern is not so much that the change is going to happen, we just have to accept that,” Hallac said. “It’s that we are maybe not in high enough gear when it comes to reacting and planning for these changes. We really need to make advances in our planning to adapt coastal communities to this new normal that is going to continue to change.”

According to Climate Central, as of right now, a 100-year flood for the Outer Banks will be nine times more likely to occur by 2050 due to sea level rise. Hallac sees this increase right now. 

“The information that we’ve seen suggests that, in fact, the frequency of high tide flooding events has increased in eastern North Carolina,” Hallac said. 

These major flooding events contribute to the downfall of houses close to the shore. 

Hallac says that he is aware of two houses that have collapsed on the Outer Banks since he became superintendent in 2015. They have just started to track these rare, but increasing, incidents and may not know about a house collapse unless the boards and other remnants appear on Cape Hatteras National Seashore

“I think the reason why this last home collapse became so well known is that we learned about this house collapsing at seven in the morning, and by nine o’clock later that morning, we had already observed debris from the home seven miles away,” Hallac said. 

This debris, laden with nails and other sharp objects, poses a risk to humans walking on the sand or swimming in the water. But it’s not just humans who are in danger – wildlife also feel the effects of houses crumbling from the wrath of climate change. Debris may injure them or alter their nesting habits. 

Along with beach erosion and sea-level rise, climate change has also brought an increasing number of storms with even greater intensity than in years past. These storms bring more rain, flooding and erosion along with other weather conditions. 

“With higher sea levels, with stronger hurricanes, potentially, that can definitely be very detrimental to coastal communities,” said Mike Lee, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Newport/Morehead City, NC. “On top of that, warmer oceans, as well as warmer temperatures across the air, not only do hurricanes potentially become stronger, but they also can also hold a lot more tropical moisture.”

When the air becomes warmer, it can hold more moisture and cause more flooding concerns. Along with this also comes the threat of storm surge. 

“The way that storm surge works is that the stronger the hurricane is, the higher the sea itself will actually essentially swell up,” Lee said. 

Storm surge can cause flooding and erosion and even further damage to the houses closest to the shore already being battered by the elements, those familiar with Outer Banks weather patterns say. 

To address the effects of climate change on our coastal community, Hallac, along with others at the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina, will introduce new ways of managing the parks to make them more resilient and less likely to be affected by climate change. 

“One of the things that we can do is we can make smarter decisions when we make investments in the future, in terms of where we develop, how we develop, and how we redevelop, to do all of that in a more sustainable manner,” Hallac said. 

This story was supported by the North Carolina Sea Grant through the Community Collaborative Research Program and with a huge assist from Aranzazu Lascurain, assistant university director of the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center at N.C. State University. NC Health News founder and editor Rose Hoban, NC Health News reporter Anne Blythe and Sarah Sloan, media producer at Narrative Arts, worked with a half dozen students to help them develop these podcasts and essays.

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