Home / General / Book Review: Stanley Riggs, et al, The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast

Book Review: Stanley Riggs, et al, The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast


In a beautifully produced book from University of North Carolina Press, Stanley Riggs and his associates review what they call “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast.” By this, they mean the constant struggle to maintain the Outer Banks against threats including climate change, rising sea levels, powerful storms, and the development that imperils the regional ecology. A marine geologist, Riggs spends most of the book explaining the geological forces shaping the North Carolina coast to the general reader this book is intended for, only getting to the “battle” at the book’s end.

Americans’ knowledge of science is pretty dismal. This ignorance, which has many antecedents we can discuss in another post, means that before we can even begin talking about coastal ecosystems, we need to be educated about them. This ignorance also gets in the way of meaningful conversations about climate change and any other scientific issue that is affecting our lives. I am a pretty smart guy I think and an environmental historian at that. I have some knowledge of biology and geology, though at the level of a interested amateur. And despite Riggs laying this out as simply as possible, without the copious full-color maps, drawings, and photographs in the book, I would have gotten lost pretty quickly. Kudos to UNC Press for investing in this. Riggs explores how the North Carolina coastal system formed, how ice ages have shaped it, and how the plentiful and powerful storms that hit the Outer Banks affect the land. He breaks down different types of barrier islands and regional differences in the ecosystem. This is the first 2/3 of the book. Only after reading 65 pages of this can we have an intelligent discussion about how to save this ecosystem.

And save is a proper word, for there is much at risk. Riggs and his coauthors repeatedly point out that ecosystems change. Climate change will destroy much of the current barrier islands but new islands and beaches will form over time. But like we think about the rest of the environment, we treat it as static, not incorporating change into our economic development plans. In this context, it means we build huge resorts on the beach and then are shocked when they get washed away. To stop this, we pour millions of dollars into technologies to keep the ocean out, just to see them continually fail.

At the same time, if Americans demand anything, it’s beach vacations. The Outer Banks have seen enormous economic and population growth over the past few decades. This is a poor region and the tourism dollars have replaced some of the lost income from textile mills and agriculture. It’s centered in only a few places and the interior counties of eastern North Carolina are pretty poor, but it helps. To maintain this economy, we look for sand to dredge for beach replenishment and keep building new homes and resorts. While overdeveloped beaches are not my favorite places to vacation, that’s just personal preference. Especially in the east, where public land is at a premium, enjoying the natural world is a premium, even if it is just sitting on the beach.

But we have to ask hard questions about how much money we are going to pour down the toilet of maintaining the Outer Banks exactly as they are today. Riggs uses the example of the Oregon Inlet Bridge to bring this home. This 2.44 mile bridge was constructed in the 1960s in order to connect Highway 12 to what were then small villages. The problem is that it was built to an inlet that natural processes dictate will constantly move. To stop this, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers engages in huge dredging operations to rebuild the inlet and keep the bridge stable. Between 1983 and 2009, the government spent $93 million to maintain the bridge. Is this a good use of taxpayer money? I don’t think so. But overwhelming pressure from developers, the tourist industry, and the Army Corps itself makes a change in policy very difficult.

Riggs tries to present some realistic economic options for North Carolina that will maintain the tourist economy on a more sustainable level while making intelligent decisions based upon scientific understandings of what barrier islands do. He suggests giving up on maintaining Highway 12 and the Oregon Inlet Bridge, noting that allowing nature to take its course would not only save us billions in coming decades but also improve fishing and help build an ecotourism economy. Ecotourism is central to his economic plans. Eastern North Carolina is a pretty amazing place with great diversity of landscapes and fantastic wildlife opportunities. More developed areas would see development limitations and houses raised onto stilts to allow for more natural ecological processes to nourish the islands and protect the structures from the ocean. He notes private islands that already have boat service from the mainland to allow people to enjoy the beaches without building a road system, suggesting an expansion of this system for areas currently connected to land by the state highway.

I doubt very much any of this is going to happen soon. There are too many economic forces combining with too much scientific illiteracy to see it through. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need smart environmental and economic planners seeking to create a more sustainable region and economy. Riggs and his co-authors deserve a lot of credit for their ideas. Hopefully somebody will take them seriously.

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  • c u n d gulag

    I think our problem is that too many of us look at the whole Earth as a renewable and replenishable resource there for our taking.

    I suspect the Earth doesn’t think WE’RE renewable or replenishable.
    I suspect the Earth will soon prove that what we are, is replaceable.

  • I take the point about the Oregon Inlet Bridge — I’ve never driven over it without thinking exactly how long is this thing going to hold up, connecting two huge sand bars to each other? You should add, though, that the bridge connects two very different Outer Banks — the Nags Head/ Kill Devil Hills/ Kitty Hawk area, which is pretty much wall-to-wall surf shops, fast food outlets, and hotels, with Hatteras Island, much of which (including the first 10-12 miles below the inlet) is federally protected land, totally wild. Yes, there are hundreds of McMansions on stilts in Rodanthe/ Waves/ Salvo, Avon, and Buxton-Frisco-Hatteras. But no McDonald’s or Starbucks — and no large hotels at all. That part of the Outer Banks, and Okracoke Island, testifies wonderfully to the wisdom of preventing developers from paving a sand bar from sound to sea, as in Nags Head or Ocean City, MD.

    Anyway, the book sounds great. Thanks for the rec, and the post.

    • The book goes into the differences between different parts of the Outer Banks and suggests distinct economic development plans for each. I was worried about boring readers with too many details to go into each one.

      • c u n d gulag

        The people of NC treasure the Outer Banks for a lot of different reasons, and some are beyond just nature and the ocean.

        One reason that I found most fascinating, are the different cultures on some of the islands.
        The first technical trainer I managed was a guy who used to spend summers there as a kid, and he told me there’s this one island out there he used to go to(I wish I could remember its name), where they apparently speak English with a dialect that’s about as close to Shakespearean English as you’re ever going to find. He could speak a bit in that dialect, and I swear, I couldn’t understand a word he said. But, after he slowed it down and “translated” it a bit, I could understand, and hear the etymologies of modern pronunciations, and some great phrases.
        He was adamant about keeping that island’s culture and language pure, and was dead set against letting us Yankees come down, build, and ruin it.
        For once, I agreed with a Southerner.

        • cackalacka

          The people of NC treasure the Outer Banks, but most of the traffic that flows down the Bonner Bridge and 12 have Va, MD, and DC tags. Apart from a couple impoverished counties down east, Hampton Roads, Richmond, DC, heck even Baltimore are closer to Buxton than any of the economically relevant areas of NC.

          Therein lies the rub; most of the ‘locals’ in NC go south, between Emerald Isle and Brunswick County, which, apart from being 4 days closer by car, also has the added feature of the barrier islands being more, well islands, than glorified sandbars.

          Even though in August you’ll see 1 NC license plate out of 20, a disproportionately ginormous amount of state taxes go to maintaining the Bonner Bridge and the other edifices of mocking God and Nature (better known as 12.) “Won’t somebody think of the children?” (aka tourism dollars) is always used as an argument to pour another 3/4 a billion into the BB, yet, if they threw a toll on it going south bound, or better yet make it a ferry, it would have the added benefit of localizing the cost and inconveniencing precisely nobody not associated with a vacation. But no, this is NC. We don’t put toll roads up, unless it impacts commuters in the piedmont.

        • xaaronx

          In case anyone is reading this from the recent link in another post, the accent you are talking about is the Hoi Toider (High Tider) accent and it is found largely on Harkers Island and in the scattering of towns and villages found out past the town of Beaufort on the mainland side of the sound. Older folks on Ocracoke have it, but it’s dying out there due to influence from all the transplants and tourists. If you go out to Ocracoke and take the Cedar Island ferry, you’ll probably hear it from a good number of the crew on the boat.

  • el donaldo

    Hey, thanks, a Christmas gift idea for my dad! He’s a civil engineer who retired to the Outer Banks and finds himself fighting the suggestions from local governments to save the islands by trucking in more sand to dump on the beaches or Jersey-Shore-style breakers to control erosion (neither of which, he keeps insisting, will have any of the desired results).

    And yes, head south from Bodie Island across that Oregon Inlet bridge and you’ll find on Hatteras Island the best stretch of beach on the East Coast and one that’s lovingly protected by the National Park Service.

    I assume that the island with the Shakespearean dialect to be Ocracoke, which has a famous brogue. It used to be quite remote, and can only be accessed by boat or ferry. But as far as preserving the culture there? It’s pretty much already gone under with the surf shops and bed & breakfasts and all. My wife and I honeymooned by camping out on the beach there. It’s excellent – just don’t plan on camping during full summer.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    Ah, you got me there. I thought you were testing my native Oregonian trivia knowledge by talking about a bridge and a highway I had never heard of before.

  • Hogan

    Army Corps of Engineers:nature::Pam Geller:Islam

    • Many, many thousands of Louisana folk would like to invite this comment to a gumbo feast (homage to Alicublog commenters).

      Down here it’s known as the Army Corpse.

  • Louisiana folk would like to do so as well!

  • Nit Picker

    Isn’t that picture of a house on the Texas gulf coast?

  • Nit Picker
  • Pingback: North Carolina Trying to Make Measuring Climate Change Illegal - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money()

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