By London Halloran
What would you do if you were told your home is slowly, but surely disappearing? As we look into the future, there may not be a place called the Outer Banks. It may only be a memory, or a show on Netflix.
The Outer Banks is home to many, including myself, as well as a variety of coastal species and year-round tourism. As sea levels rise, causing wetland flooding and destructive erosion to our little sandbar, we never stop to think about what is being done to prevent this. That is, until 2014 when the Beach Nourishment Projects first started here in Dare County. Beach nourishment is the process of placing additional sediment on our shorelines to create a wider and higher beach to provide storm protection, create new habitat, and enhance a “newer” beach.
In 2021, $99 million was spent on Outer Banks projects from Duck to Buxton according to an article published by The Virginian-Pilot.
I was given the opportunity to talk with Paul Paris, from the Coastal Studies Institute in Wanchese, to get more information about beach nourishment projects that are taking place here in Dare County. What I learned from him is that climate change is an ongoing concern. He shared ideas for what we initially need to do and what it will take for our home to survive a few more years.
“We see that in terms of rising temperatures and in terms of sea-level rise, we have a lot of data to back all of that up. In terms of what that is and how that is impacting us living on the ocean, for the most part, most of us who live here live within only a few meters of sea level,” said Paris, a staff research scientist at CSI. “It doesn’t take much to get the water up high during a storm or even some strong wind events to cause a lot of problems with flooding.”
This Dare County government website has cool before and after pictures of beach nourishment projects.
With sea-level rise increasing and the beach nourishment projects taking place as a positive way to expand the beaches of Dare County and protect beachfront homes, there are other effects that these projects can have on our coastal environment. Some of these negative effects include habitat destruction, disturbance of wildlife, and construction zones on the parts of the beaches undergoing beach nourishment.
In my interview with Paris, I asked him how the beach nourishment projects come into play with the effects of the coastal environment including birds, crabs, turtles and their nests, and other species that live on the shoreline where the trucks are dumping sand and sand is being pumped onto the beach.
“There are impacts, certainly short term impacts,” said Paris. “We are in a position here, where we have really no choice. Our economy is built off the beach. In terms of impacts on the ecosystem, it depends a lot on exactly how you execute the nourishment itself.”
Paris said that if you do things right, the environment and the critters in it can recover and they do.
“I think most people don’t realize it’s filled with life, there’s a ton of life down here in the form of these little invertebrates that live in these harsh living incredibly challenging areas, right where the surface is breaking up on the beach, it’s pretty hostile environments,” said Paris. “There’s a whole ecosystem that feeds back into things that affect us because not only do those little birds eat, but these guys move seasonally on and off shore. There’s food for fish and crabs that we like to catch recreationally or commercially. So you know, the health of the beaches does affect us.”
On the Outer Banks, we keep our beaches protected and clean. At almost every beach access you will see recycling cans and trash cans. These beach nourishment projects are not the cleanest for our environment especially on the coastal part where the ocean is located and suffers enough as it is. Trucks filled with heavy sand being brought onto the beaches not only disturbs wildlife and creates habitat destruction, but these trucks run on gas and have oil in them which can easily cause tire tracks, trash left behind by construction workers, and the large equipment creates a barrier.
I wanted to know if there was a different approach to replenish the beaches, a way to keep our beaches protected from sea level rise without having to use harmful machinery on our coastal zone.
“We live in a very high energy environment, so even putting hard structures out there, like sea walls and stuff would be very risky,” he said. “In terms of other technologies, other considerations, there have been other proposals, they’re pretty hard to use, but actually and this may have to happen at some point in the future moving houses in mass moving structures.”
Continuing beach nourishment projects allows time to go by, but as these projects need to be done more frequently, more areas of the beaches need to be done. Projects like beach nourishment include the use of raw materials in the form of sand. To get those materials, going offshore to dredge it up from the ocean is the solution which increases cost more.
I asked Paris about an article from the Dare County website on beach nourishment and how expensive it is to fund these projects. Right now, the costs are around $99 million. I also wanted to know what’s behind the short-term goals of delaying erosion from taking over.
“Our economy is tourist-oriented, and that tourism is a function of the beach and having a healthy beach, or even doing something more fundamental than that even having a beach to go to,” Paris told me. “So, if you take that asset away, people aren’t going to come here as much. It’s necessary to do it, unfortunately.”
Beach nourishment projects are a short-term solution to help our economy thrive. People that live here don’t need to move away from their homes and the protection of the beautiful beachfront homes from becoming waterfront homes. There is also a place for those who vacation on the Outer Banks.
Looking into the future, everyone should pay closer attention to how our home is changing due to climate change and how we can keep our homes from “disappearing” a little longer.
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.