Changing shoreline of OBX sound side

Changing shoreline of OBX sound side

By Jakub Skultety
Jakub Skultety, from Kill Devil Hills Hawk, NC explores how living shorelines can mitigate coastal erosion in his home community on the Outer Banks.

Have you ever been sitting in class one day, dreaming of going to the beach?

Well, soon the beach you dream of visiting might be underwater.

The question is: How soon?

I live in the Outer Banks. Recently, I had the chance to ask a climate scientist this very question. The answer is very personal to me, and I was shocked when he gave me a straightforward response. 

“I can’t give you an exact date of when the Outer Banks will disappear,” said Reide Corbette from the Integrated Coastal Programs at East Carolina University. “Sure, someday. Not my lifetime, not in your lifetime, but someday they will. In 2100, yeah, they’ll still be places on the Outer Banks that people are living, and the Outer Banks, Outer Bankers are pretty resilient.

Jakub Skultety

“We’ll find ways to work with the environment to find ways to work within the challenges associated with climate change,” Corbette added “But not all the properties that we have today are going to be habitable. Come 2100, the Outer Banks is going to look very different.”

North Carolina has about 300 miles of ocean shoreline and about 10,000 miles of estuarine shoreline, including the Outer Banks. If you’re a coastal resident, you’re probably familiar with ocean-facing beach renourishment. On the Sound side, where I live, we flood more often than the ocean side because we are on the back, sloping end of the barrier islands. Traditionally sound side residents have used hardened engineered shorelines. We’re talking seawalls, bulkheads and riprap. 

Corbette said new techniques are surfacing. 

“Just a couple of years ago, living shorelines started to gain in popularity,” he told me. 

Scientific evidence suggests that living shorelines are effective. Corbette described a few examples of living shorelines. 

“Putting a sill and planting behind the sill or putting oyster shells in front of a shoreline,” he said.

Living shorelines, Corbette said, are effective because they reduce the amount of energy a shoreline receives. “This, what they also refer to as more green infrastructure,” he added.

Examples of Sheetpile Sills Constructed from Timber (left) and Vinyl (right). Photos courtesy of NC DEQ

All of this helps to reduce coastal erosion, according to Corbette, who added that no one is immune from erosion. Everywhere there’s a coastline there’s erosion. We can slow it down, Corbette added, and if you reduce the energy of the water, it slows down the loss of sand and barrier islands.

“We can use all sorts of techniques,” Corbette said.

This isn’t just happening on the Outer Banks or even just on this country’s eastern shoreline. This is happening everywhere that has a coastline, experts such as Corbette say.

That doesn’t account for what could happen if big parts of the polar ice cap were to break free. If that were to happen we might see an extra foot of sea level, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

We can’t stop this overnight, this is going to be a decades-long effort. We have caused global warming over the span of about 100 years, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, so it is hard to reverse its impacts instantly. The easiest way to think of it is like a train, we have sped it up going faster and faster and it will take time to slow it down. 

On the sound side or the backside of the sound side many techniques are available to slow erosion down.

“It’s been a few years now, but the permitting for doing these living shorelines become much easier, or at least, not so much more difficult than an engineered solution, something like a bulkhead,” Corbette added. “Just five years ago, it was much easier for a homeowner to get a permit for a bulkhead compared to that for a living shoreline and that has really been balanced today. 

“So I think what you’re going to see is that what has dominated the reduction of erosion on the sound side has been these engineered solutions, these hardened structures like bulkheads. And I think you’re gonna see that shift to more green infrastructure, some more living shorelines, more plantings, given that the permitting for that has gotten much easier, and that the scientific evidence suggests that it’s often cheaper and lasts longer, and it’s better for the environment.”

An oyster reef on the sound side of the Outer Banks. Photo courtesy: NC DEQ

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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