The tourists flocking to North Carolina's Outer Banks right now know that the joys of summer there—the gorgeous beaches, the wild horses, the views of the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras—come to an end as the season fades.
But they may not know that the place itself is disappearing from the map.
Under the combined effects of storms, development, and sea-level rise, portions of this narrow, 200-mile island chain are collapsing, says Stanley Riggs, a coastal geologist at East Carolina University in Greenville.
"We're losing them right now," he says. "In the next ten years, it's going to be awful."
In an area of Hatteras Island between Avon and Buxton, the beach has receded about 2,500 feet in the past 150 years. That portion of the island has narrowed to just 25 percent of its original width, according to Riggs. In Buxton and Rodanthe, and farther north in Nags Head, houses and hotels once solidly on land stand on spindly stilts in the surf.
State Highway 12, the only road to Hatteras Island, repeatedly has buckled and washed out during storms. It briefly closed after Hurricane Arthur made landfall July 3.
The erosion is set to worsen as sea-level rise accelerates around the world because of global warming.
As that happens, coastal communities everywhere will face the same wrenching decisions that confront Outer Banks inhabitants today—and that are causing enormous fear there, says Michael Orbach, professor emeritus of marine policy at Duke University's marine lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. What's at stake for locals is not just summer fun but a way of life and an entire economy that is now based on tourism.
"All these effects that people have been talking about for years are now actually starting to be seen," Orbach says. "And they realize that we don't know what to do about it."
See the rest of the article on NationalGeographic.com
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