At Nags Head workshop, a call to action

The numbers don’t sound particularly ominous. The current sea level rise (SLR) rate on the Outer Banks is about four to four-and-a-half millimeters per year, with a projected SLR over the next 30 years of anywhere from five to 17 inches.

    But, combined with the region’s notoriously finicky weather and severe storms, the long-term impact of rising seas on the Outer Banks could well include loss of marshland, increased elevation of the water table with resulting compromised septic systems, the potential opening of new inlets and significant shoreline changes.

    That was the message delivered last week in Nags Head by Dr. Reide Corbett of East Carolina University and the UNC Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) at a two-day workshop on rising seas. This combination of rising seas, a low-lying coast and a region that is a “bull’s eye” for storms, Corbett observed, makes the Outer Banks “a fairly hazardous place to live.”

    According to Nags Head Mayor Bob Edwards, the idea for the workshop began percolating about a year ago — during a conversation with former State Senator Marc Basnight — when Basnight warned that sea level rise is a worsening “reality” and “the town of Nags Head needs to plan on how you're going to cope with it."

    The workshop, presented by North Carolina Sea Grant in partnership with NC State University and CSI, was intended to explore how sea level rise may impact Nags Head's infrastructure and resources in the future and steps that can be taken to make the town more prepared to withstand, respond and recover rapidly from weather events without long-term damage to its environment or economy.

    For their part, Nags Head officials announced their commitment to respond to seal level rise by being "proactive" in formulating a coherent set of "coastal resiliency" policies and making them part of the town's Comprehensive Plan in its Focus Nags Head visioning project. In addition, Edwards raised the prospect of creating a regional commission on sea level rise "to work with the other towns in collaboration on a lot of these things that need to be implemented.”

    "We don't live on an island by ourselves," he said, somewhat figuratively.

    At the workshop, Corbett and his colleague, Dr. J.P. Walsh, presented an overview of the state of sea level science. While tide gauges throughout the world have indicated a global sea level rise of about eight inches since the late 1800s, newer data indicate that this rate is accelerating and project an additional rise from about two feet to as much as six feet by 2100.

    A controversial 2010 study entitled "Drowning the North Carolina Coast" by Dr. Stanley Riggs, a renowned ECU coastal geologist, cited data showing that the beach between Avon and Buxton on Hatteras Island "has receded about 2,500 feet in the past 150 years [and] that portion of the island has narrowed to just 25 percent of its original width." N.C. Highway 12, the only road to Hatteras Island, has been washed out and rebuilt repeatedly during storms.

    Noting the current SLR rates on the Outer Banks of approximately four millimeters per year, Corbett added: "If you think about that on an annual basis, it's not that much. But you need to consider that this is happening every year and every year after that. And so it compounds itself with time."

    Citing the phenomenon of glacial rebound and subsidence, Corbett said along the North Carolina coast the North American continent is "subsiding" or settling and sinking lower. "Here in Nags Head we are actually subsiding at about one and a half millimeters a year," he said. "In Wilmington it's a little less than that — on the order of half a millimeter a year."

    The two-day workshop was highlighted by breakout group participation in "Vulnerability, Consequences and Adaptation Planning Scenarios (VCAPS)" sessions aimed at integrating local knowledge and experience about weather and climate threats, how the community may be impacted and both short and long term strategies for reducing and mitigating harm and maximizing benefits. During the brainstorming sessions, each group's facilitator guided participants in building a model depicting sequential scenarios of hazards and responses through text placed in color-coded rectangles connected by arrows.

    The three breakout groups started with different preliminary observations of hazards associated with SLR related storm events, but ended up focusing on several main issues, including water quality, shoreline management and public safety and infrastructure.

    Addressing water quality issues, the groups took note of Nags Head's Septic Health Initiative, an incentive program that encourages property owners to keep their septic systems maintained with regular inspections and having the system pumped or replaced when necessary.

    One method of upgrading septic system capacities discussed was moving to a larger offsite wastewater treatment system that serves a small area or neighborhood, similar to the one at Jennette's Pier. Mayor Edwards commented that "the gorilla in the living room is will we be able to avoid going to a central sewer system?" He said that is a question that no one wants to acknowledge, but may have to be addressed.

    Thanking everyone for their time and hard work, Lead Facilitator Jessica Whitehead of NC Sea Grant, commented, "This is the most detailed level of information and potential solutions that I've seen in any of the communities in which I've worked."

    Nags Head Principal Planner Holly White said she was excited at the prospect of working with town staff and residents to find consensus on key issues and develop long-term policies that will become an integral part of the town's Comprehensive Plan. "This absolutely cannot be something that gets put on a shelf somewhere," she emphasized. "It has to become something that we will be committed to really putting into action.”

    Willo Kelly, government affairs director for the Outer Banks Association of Realtors and the Outer Banks Home Builders Association, said she was "encouraged" by the participants' serious discussion of "incremental changes over a long period of time" to adapt to the changing environment of the Outer Banks.

    "I did not hear anyone say one time, 'Oh, you just need to move to the mainland,'" she stated.


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