North Carolina Outer Banks


An example of a low-lying, densely populated coastline subject to relentless battering by the Atlantic Ocean.

In Module 3, we examined the characteristics of barrier islands as coastal geomorphological features. Barrier islands are characteristic of passive margin coastlines like the east coast of the U.S., where the classic barrier systems of New Jersey and North Carolina are found. Here, the right conditions exist for the formation and sustenance of these features. The Gulf coast, a marginal sea coast, also supports many barrier island systems. All barrier islands are dynamic systems that are in a constant state of change as natural forces redistribute the sediment from which they are made. By virtue of their offshore locations, barrier islands receive the brunt of the energy of storms that impact the coastlines of the U.S. Due to their low-profile, are also susceptible to sea level rise. Most are moving landward in response to sea level rise. In this section, we will look briefly at examples of the conflicts that arise when people build communities on barrier islands and try to find solutions to the problems of beach erosion and sea level rise.


In the film “Shored Up,” these issues are examined in detail. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend watching this film in its entirety. Remember, you can access this film in Module 6 in Canvas.

Here, we will take a quick look as some of the issues taking place on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where conflicts have played out on these dynamic barrier islands which support a multi-billion-dollar tourism industry.

The North Carolina coastal zone consists of “about 325 miles of ocean shoreline along the front of a string of barrier islands broken by a series of 21 enduring inlets and a series of shorter-lived inlets that open and close in response to……storms” (Stanley Riggs, The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast) It is a low-lying, geologically dynamic system where water and land interact.

This coastal zone has become highly developed during the past 50 -100 years. Tourism has become extremely important component of the local economy. Roads and bridges were built beginning in the early 1950s and the coastal communities grew as people responded to the accessibility of this beautiful shoreline. Various shoreline management practices such as building hard structures to prevent erosion of the sandy shoreline, and beach nourishment, have been used to try to hold the land in place. “All of these anthropogenic interventions interrupt the natural barrier island dynamics. In an environment driven by rising sea level and storm activity, the inevitable result is conflict between humans and the natural processes” “Public education of both the citizens and leadership on this high energy and dynamic set of sand islands is crucial for the future of NC's coastal economy. ….Most people who live on the Outer Banks appreciate the energy of their home, but all too often don't have a very good understanding of how the coastal system works.” (Riggs).

Communities throughout the Outer Banks, NC are becoming increasingly at risk as sea level rises and storm frequency increases. A panel of 19 scientists used regional and global data to estimate that sea level will rise on the North Carolina Coast from 15 to 55 inches by 2100. The panel settled on 39 inches (1 meter) as a number to present to the state legislature, which is a medium level predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The scientists’ recommendations for actions based on these sea level rise estimates were met with resistance from the North Carolina legislators, who voted against taking action based on sea level rise.

Aerial view of the Outer Banks
Figure 6.9: The Outer Banks, separating the Atlantic Ocean (east) from Currituck and Albemarle Sounds (north) and Pamlico Sound (south).
Credit: Original source NASA but imported from English Wiki

Tourism in the Outer Banks is a huge economic driver for North Carolina. According to North Carolina’s Department of Commerce, tourism in the 20 North Carolina coastal counties brought in approximately $2.5 billion in 2009. 85% of that amount is attributable to the barrier islands. Furthermore, in the summer of 2011 almost half (47.5%) of the total visitors to the state traveled to the Outer Banks. (See Figure 6.10)

Graph shows summer of 2011, the coastal region received 47.5% of travel to North Carolina.
Figure 6.10: During the summer of 2011 (June- August), the coastal region received 47.5% of travel to North Carolina.
Credit: North Carolina Department of Commerce, 2012.

North Carolina’s legislators’ reluctance to acknowledge climate change may lead to a lack of emergency support when it is needed, due to risks associated with sea level rise. According to Riggs (2013), “Large cities [New York, Boston, Washington DC, Miami, and New Orleans]… will be at the head of the line for emergency support.” A group called NC-20, representing the 20 coastal counties, lobbied to have a bill passed that prohibits policy makers from considering accelerated sea level rise projections. Bill 819 passed August 1, 2012, making it illegal in North Carolina for policy makers to consider accelerated rates of sea level rise when developing policy. It is still in law today. This will lead to policies that focus almost entirely on short-term economics and keeping business as usual, instead of seeking solutions to a problem that will continue to worsen and put many property owners at increased risk.

North Carolina Representative David Rouzer defends Bill 819, “The economic value of coastal property in those counties was $1.6 billion... 8,000 ocean front structures, so when you’re talking about sea level rise and the implications of this, you’re talking about affecting land use, you’re talking about affecting property values, and you’re talking about insurance rates and everything else.” This tension is an example of how challenging it can be to make policy changes that are based on science. These types of scenarios in which politics dictates the actions of communities. They are playing out in many coastal areas where taking actions based on sea level rise becomes very politically unpopular when property values and peoples' livelihoods are at stake.

Living on the Beach

Permanent structures (e.g., houses, hotels, restaurants) have not always existed on barrier islands. Notice how sparse development is in the top panel of Figure 6.11. Between 1932 and 1999, Nags Head developed into one of the most populous towns in the Outer Banks.

Two images 1932 and 1999, show development of barrier islands. Massive development of infrastructure
Figure 6.11: Development has not always existed on barrier islands. (Copied from Battle for North Carolina’s Coast, originally published by Riggs and Ames 2003).
Credit: Stanley Riggs, with permission

The sustainability of having permanent structures on barrier islands is debatable. Federally-subsidized flood insurance made living on the coast financially secure according to Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense (Speaking in Ben Kalina’s documentary Shored Up), because a homeowner could now insure their house for up to $250,000. Problems rose in 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma struck. A massive quantity of claims left the program with a $20 billion deficit after 2005. When Hurricane Sandy struck, the program still had a deficit of $17 billion. $10 billion dollars from the Federal Reserve were given to the program to pay claims. “You subsidize what you want,” Steve Ellis says, “Do we want to do more of this? Do we want more development on the coast?” While looking over breaking waves, flying birds, and wild dunes in documentary film Shored Up, Stan Riggs states, “This is what we ought to be selling as a tourist resource and building with it and living with it, those energies and dynamics, not trying to control them or stabilize them or stop that system. We aren’t going to stop it.”

Road damage from storms in Rodanthe. Road is wavy and cracked
Figure 6.12: Road damage in Rodanthe.
Credit: Roger Shew
construction site for new dunes containing debris
Figure 6.13: Newly constructed, vegetation-less dunes with debris. These dunes limit parking.
Credit: Andy Lade

Meanwhile, evidence of the challenges of sea level rise and accompanying storm damage abounds on the Outer Banks. Rodanthe is a town of 261 residents on Hatteras Island. On October 20, 2008, a 5-year-old house collapsed into the ocean. A 3-story home was reduced to 10-12 tractor-trailer loads of rubble. Hatteras Island is naturally migrating landward with rising sea levels, but structures like houses and roads do not migrate with the sands. Many houses are now in the swash zone and at risk of collapse.

What happens when a house is destroyed by the waves? Who pays the cost? Is it rebuilt? In some cases, the property owners face substantial loss, while in other cases, government buyout programs are enacted. Repair of damaged property and the cost of buyout programs are huge expenses that must be borne by someone if communities are going to survive on the Outer Banks.

Beach nourishment is another cost. The cost of Outer Banks beach nourishment reached $121 million and covered about 23 miles in the six years ending in December 2017.

Dare County commissioners set aside occupancy taxes to help pay for the for this laundry list of beach nourishment projects taking place along the length of the Outer Banks. The towns have also set up tax districts to fund a portion of the costs. If the tourism industry can continue to fund these types of projects through occupancy taxes and the like, the communities will continue to exist, for a while at least. The longer-term future is less certain.

Reference: Riggs, S. R., Ames, D.V., Culver, S. J., Mallinson D. J. 2011. The Battle for North Carolina's Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis, and Vision for the Future. University of North Carolina Press.