North Carolina’s Coastal (Climate Change) Conundrum

As oceans rise and storms intensify, coastlines across the U.S. and worldwide are feeling the impacts of climate change. North Carolina is not immune and the effects of climate change are being felt in tourism-driven cities like Wilmington and the Outer Banks region.

The effects of climate change are accelerating, including the rise of sea levels. According to a study of 32 coastal cities (Wilmington is included) Disappearing Cities on US Coasts, sea levels are expected to rise about a foot by 2050.

There are no easy answers and climate change experts, and local and state officials differ on the solutions. Orrin H. Pilkey, James B. Duke Professor Emeritus at Duke University, said the ramifications go beyond losing beaches from intense storms, damaging wind/rain, and other weather hazards. With co-author, Keith C. Pilkey, he argues in Sea Level Rise, that the only feasible response along much of the U.S. shoreline is immediate and managed retreat (building further away from the coastline, building up, and building structures that can be easily moved).

Pilkey’s stance is not popular with tourism officials, developers, or home owners who routinely flock to the coast. For those opposed to managed retreat, one response is the re-nourishment of beaches. This approach has a high price tag, and North Carolina re-nourishment projects have cost $855 million. The results are not long lasting –a $20 million project in Rodanthe, North Carolina, disappeared after two years.

In a 2021 panel among climate change experts, Mike Sprayberry, former North Carolina Director of Emergency Management, said that throwing money at renourishment projects is a losing battle. He suggested that slowing development should be on the table. Marine geologist and author, Dr. Stan Riggs, has gone further and suggested halting construction of bridges to prevent further access.

Climate change is more than sea level rise – it is experienced through increased storm activity, hurricanes and flooding rains. Wilmington made national news in 2018 when Hurricane Florence stalled over the city making travel to the city nearly impossible.  

Dr. Walter Robinson, professor at North Carolina State University, and climate change expert, agrees with Pilkey and others. “There is no easy answer, and climate change will likely require a combination of solutions,” said Robinson. “The pace of climate change is faster than anticipated and 2023 was a record year for climate warnings,” he continued.

The solution is not a one size fits all, but one thing is certain – coastlines and beaches will not remain the same. Is the answer renourishment, building back, up or not at all?  “Climate science is solid but has controversial solutions,” said Robinson. “Still, I want to give my students hope for the future, so I teach them that there are solutions.”