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Shifting Sands

Climate change and the Outer Banks.

Shifting Sands

National Geographic

The Outer Banks is a string of barrier islands along North Carolina’s coast which brings in nearly $1 billion a year through tourism-related spending, the bulk of the season lasting just four months, from June through September. A development boom beginning after WWII led to increased buildings to accommodate an influx of visitors. Dare County, which includes the majority of the barrier islands, is the only county in North Carolina to have nearly an equivalent number of people as there are housing structures. At 35,000 residents (U.S. Census 2010), there are 34,000 housing units. However, according to a study by the Carolina Population Center at UNC, "44% of Dare's housing units were seasonal housing." For locals and natives who call this their home, the seasonal housing market, and limited land causes increased demand with low supply. As the world braces for sea level rise, this stretch of sand is and its residents are well into an infinite battle with nature. What would otherwise be a natural adaptation to rising sea levels, the presence of man-made structures like buildings and roads prevent this natural migration, and exacerbate the problem. The result is increased shoreline erosion, forest retreat, and short-sighted spending. According to a study of developed shoreline from Western Carolina University, North Carolina has spent $640.4 million since 1990 on beach nourishment projects. When the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built in 1870 on the coast known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, its home was 1,500 feet from the shoreline. By 1999, the lighthouse was relocated after only 120 feet of shore remained between its location and the Atlantic. In areas just west of the Outer Banks like the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, ghost forests are signs of the effects of an unstable habitat where the freshwater marshes are rapidly turning brackish and eventually to complete salt water. These coastal forests are not only important habitats for wildlife, they also act as buffers from storms, protecting interior communities from storm surges.