Making the case against hardening North Carolina’s coast

The plight of these homes stranded after a major storm along the Carolina coast highlight the challenges facing this dynamic landscape. (© Tom McKenzie/USFWS)

As changes to North Carolina law open the way to hardening the state’s cherished coast, experts are gathering to discuss the implications of trying to tame a dynamic landscape.

Tomorrow evening Derb Carter, Director of SELC’s Chapel Hill office, will serve on an expert panel to explore these issues further. The panel is part of the “Future of North Carolina’s Coast Symposium,” hosted at North Carolina State University and sponsored, in part, by SELC.

Since the state legislature repealed long-standing laws against beach hardening structures such as sea walls and jetties, there has been a spike in proposed and permitted projects. This increase comes despite the known impacts these structures have, including increasing beach erosion and disrupting coastal ecosystems.

Softer alternatives such as beach nourishment, living shorelines, and strategic retreat respond to rising seas while maintaining the beaches and marshes that are essential to both our coastal ecosystems and coastal economy.  The most common soft approach is beach nourishment, where sand is brought in to rebuild beaches. Living shorelines are another alternative, where tidal marshes are recreated, building up a waterfront that not only absorbs the tide but provides a home to many creatures critical to coastal ecosystems.  And there must be some recognition that retreat from rising seas and the billions of dollars of public expenditures to fight the inevitable is the wisest choice.

These soft options are better able to weather the constantly changing, storm-prone nature of the barrier islands and maintain our beaches and marshes, which belong to the public. The long history of infrastructure crumbling when built along these shores has given the false impression of fragile barrier islands. In reality, it’s not the dynamic, continuously shifting islands that are fragile, but the human structures built on top of them. Espousing a policy of beach hardening ignores these realities and sets the coast up for even greater challenges in the future.

For more information on beach hardening in North Carolina and to register for the event, please visit nclandofwater.org/events.

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