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As sea level rise accelerates and increasingly violent storms batter the shore, beach erosion is worsening along the Carolina coast. A recent report the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projected that water levels along the East Coast will rise as much in the next 30 years – 10 to 12 inches – as it has in the previous 100, putting waterfront property owners and communities that rely on coastal tourism underwater both literally and figuratively.
Spring is the peak season for the Army Corp of Engineers to embark on a series of projects along the nation’s coasts in an attempt to replace what the ocean has taken away.
In North Carolina, places like Nags Head and Oak Island Beach are increasingly reliant on beach nourishment, a practice where sand is dredged from the seafloor, mixed with 70 percent water and pumped onto the beaches.
Beach nourishment is an incredibly expensive and temporary fix which must be performed with increasing frequency. Nags Head has spent tens of millions of dollars nourishing its beaches in the past decade but still couldn’t save East Seagull Drive where the land has been eroding at a rate of about six feet each year.
Similar beach nourishment projects are happening all along the Atlantic Coast, at tremendous expense and with a negative impact on biodiversity. Dredging sand kills organisms that live on the ocean floor, setting off a domino effect where the fish population that relies on it as a food source are decimated along with birds and other shore animals.
Those ecosystems would recover over time if beach nourishment projects weren’t constant and ongoing. Some Carolina beaches are replenished every three or four years. Factor in the effects of climate change – more intense and more frequent storms amid increasing sea-level rise – and you have a recipe for more beach destruction and even higher costs. It is the equivalent of trying to bail out the tide with a bucket.
Coastal scientists warn that this process is not sustainable and will only lead to eroding cliffs and no beaches. But as long as it maintains property values and tourist destinations in the short term, don't expect anything to change.
This aligns with assertions made by Western Carolina University geologist Robert Young. Young says that governments are willing to spend big dollars to protect property deemed valuable while forcing people who live in working class, blue collar and poor Black communities to relocate.
There is a growing consensus among conservationists that beach replenishment is not a good solution for dealing with climate change, storm surges and sea-level rise. In encouraging the New Jersey Legislature to reject plans to increase funds for beach replenishment, Sierra Club members dubbed these annual projects exercises in futility that destroy natural ecosystems and subsidize wealthy beachfront homeowners at taxpayers’ expense. “We have continued to watch failed beach replenishment projects pump millions of dollars of sand on our beaches that just wash away in the next storm," said Sierra Club spokesperson, Taylor McFarland.
**Cover Photo: National Park Service