Like many Carolinians, the ocean is in my blood. Nothing delights me more than spending a day on the sand hunting for shells, on a board out in the churning waves or in a boat exploring twisting tidal creeks, emerald green with spartina grass.
I’m not a climate scientist or geologist, but you don’t need extensive technical training to notice that things are rapidly changing on the North Carolina and South Carolina barrier islands. The high tides are getting higher. Coastal storms are getting stronger and lasting longer. Onshore flooding is becoming commonplace. And the beachfronts themselves are noticeably shifting and taking down buildings as they go.
Although the geographic changes we observe on our beaches can be concerning, they are signs of natural geological processes at the heart of our islands. By their very nature, barrier islands migrate.
This migration is best conceptualized on a geologic time scale. With their expansive beachfront “boneyards” of dead trees, Bulls Island and Capers Island in South Carolina give testament to our shifting shorelines, as do the black shells commonly found on our beaches. These artifacts gained their hue following burial in the dark sediment of salt marshes on the mainland side of the islands. As the oceanfront of these islands erode and migrate back toward the mainland, these ancient buried sediments become exposed on the ocean side of the island.
We have built fine houses, hotels, resorts and, in some cases, entire towns on what are essentially giant piles of sand destined to move and shift, in some places quite radically. The islands aren’t permanent, even if they seem that way to us.
Fundamentally, nothing can be done to stop this shifting. Accelerating climate change brings with it long-term sea level rise, stronger storms and higher tides. Each of these changes facilitates barrier island migration and increases in the loss of sandy beachfronts that cannot be halted.
Attempts at shoreline protection and restoration, such as beach nourishment, artificial dune building and the structural reinforcement of beaches with sandbags, rock piles and groins, are at best temporary, and in some cases can actually hasten further erosion.
Beach nourishment has proven to be a particularly expensive and pointless folly. In the spring of 2018, Isle of Palms in South Carolina completed the latest in several nourishment attempts meant to fight erosion on the island’s north end. More than 1.5 million cubic yards of sand was dredged and placed on the beachfront at a cost surpassing $11 million.
But for all this money, Isle of Palms property owners are really just “renting” the sand. It will surely be removed from the island face by wave action over the coming years, just as the ocean has fully reclaimed sand from past nourishment efforts. These projects also cause substantial ecological damage, as they significantly alter habitats for sea life both in the underwater areas where the sand is dredged and on the beach where the sand is deposited.
To protect our coast for future generations, we need to let the natural processes that govern island migration run their course. This almost certainly means abandoning properties to be overtaken by the sea and radically rethinking all future development of the ocean side of barrier islands.
Of course, this is bad news for many wealthy property owners and real estate agents who avoid frank and realistic conversations regarding our changing shorelines and what must be done to protect them.
This avoidance was never more apparent than in 2012 when a group of property owners and businesses backed the passage of legislation — House Bill 819 — in North Carolina in an attempt to shore up coastal property values. This law banned public policy based on legitimate scientific predictions of accelerated coastal sea level rise and made our state the butt of many jokes.
Putting our heads in the sand (so to speak) will not change the fact that an ever-increasing number of beachfront properties in the Carolinas are fundamentally doomed. Yes, these are people’s houses and income generators, but it was sheer hubris to build such expensive structures on the beachfront of these shifting islands to begin with.
If we want to preserve our islands, we must stop all artificial erosion interventions and let the islands move as they will. Our beaches are a valuable public resource to be shared by us all. We must not allow those with direct economic interests in beachfront real estate (homeowners and real estate agents) to drive public policy and decisions about how the beaches are to be used.