Interview: Stanley R. Riggs on the Importance of Protecting North Carolina’s Coast

Stanley R. Riggs, co-author of The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis, and Vision for the Future, discusses the importance of understanding and protecting North Carolina’s ever-changing shoreline.

Q: How did a man from Montana become interested in coastal geology?

A: I am frequently asked this question. The answer is that the shoreline of one of the world’s great seaways used to exist along the eastern flank of the present-day Rocky Mountains. This sea, known as the Western Interior Seaway, existed during much of the Cretaceous Period (from about 145 to 65 million years ago), when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. At its maximum extent, the seaway stretched east to the Appalachian Mountains and northward from what is now the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Because of this ancient seaway, the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains is dominated by Cretaceous coastal sediments deposited along the western shoreline.

As students in Montana, my classmates and I spent much of our time studying these ancient coastal deposits, as well as taking many field trips to study the modern Pacific, Gulf, and Atlantic coastal systems. The Cretaceous deposits in the Western Interior Seaway were similar to those forming in modern beaches, dune fields, mud flats, marshes, and shallow shelf environments. I began working on the marine geology of Florida in 1962 and worked my way up the coast to North Carolina by 1964. I was hired by ECU in 1967 to help develop a marine geology program and have been working as a marine and coastal geologist in many parts of the world since then.

Q: You wrote this book with a team of geologists and co-workers. How did the book benefit from the team approach?

A: The coast is a vast and complex natural system that is like a living organism. It takes a broad team of experts with many different fields of expertise to understand how the human body works. Likewise, it takes a team of experts to dissect the coast and uncover its past history, to understand the present dynamics and interactions, and to project this information into a vision for the future. Each of the co-authors, as well as our many other associates and students who have helped with this book, bring different expertise to the team that is critical for developing a holistic understanding of this complex, dynamic, and rapidly changing ecosystem. This is the value of an integrated team of researchers.

Q: The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast is a call to action to protect North Carolina’s coastal economy. To whom is this call directed? Who is your target audience?

A: If you are a member of the human race, you are part of our target audience. As the world population increases, the demands for space and resources increase dramatically. It becomes increasingly imperative that all of society understands the character, dynamics, and resources of our planet earth. Even though this book deals primarily with North Carolina’s coastal system, it is a case study in which the basic concepts are directly applicable to coastal systems all over the world, as well as other types of the earth’s ecosystems.

Q: The book manages to be both foreboding and optimistic. How would you characterize your own attitude towards the future of the North Carolina coast?

A: If we are smart as a society and begin to acknowledge and adapt to the natural processes of a rapidly changing coastal system, a healthy coastal economy can grow with time. The only constant in dynamic coastal systems is that of change. If society does not recognize this, both the economy and the healthy resource base upon which it is totally dependent will be short lived. The forces that are involved at the land-sea-air intersection are greater than our long-term engineering abilities to protect the status quo. This is both the beauty and power that draws people to the coast. So, let’s get serious and build an economy that is based upon the dynamics of change and learn to live as an equal partner with our awesome coastal system.

Q: Why are the barrier islands so important to our coastal economy?

A: Barrier islands are the ocean’s “energy absorbing sponges.” Storms on the Atlantic Ocean produce the physical energy associated with storm surges, waves, and coastal currents that does the work as they impact the ocean’s barriers. This is the energy that builds the barrier islands and moves them upward and landward in response to sea-level rise. Thus the barriers are mobile piles of sand that form and move in response to the dynamics of storms and sea-level rise. Everyone loves the mystery and power of the ocean–the barrier islands with their vast shorelines and high energy inlets are the epitome of this mystery and power that draws people to its sandy shores.

Q: Coastal tourism is vital to North Carolina’s economy. How can we protect the coast’s natural resources while also supporting the economic sustainability and growth of the region?

A: Our vision for the future of North Carolina’s coastal system and associated economy is based upon “living in harmony with the coast.” The vision for the coastal system of southeastern N.C., which is already largely urbanized, presents “islands of opportunity” for adaptation to change. This discussion should begin now, so that as the never-ending stream of storms take their toll, we can systematically begin adapting to the changing conditions. The Outer Banks of northeastern N.C. are rapidly becoming a natural “string of pearls,” with small villages connected by a series of vast shoals. In this context, we must soon determine whether to rebuild the Oregon Inlet bridge and forever fight expensive battles trying to maintain a fixed highway on the narrow and collapsing simple barrier islands. Or should we adapt to the ongoing changes and develop a new high-tech ferry system that will connect all the Outer Banks villages with the mainland villages. This would produce eight Ocracoke-style destination villages that can build upon the culture and history of the Outer Banks and interconnect with a new and sustainable eco-tourism based within N.C.’s “Land of Water” with its estuarine shorelines of vast marshes, mysterious swamp forests, and meandering black-water streams. Water is the essence of life on our blue and green planet Earth–let’s build a sustainable tourism economy based upon this awesome resource.

Q: In this book, you argue that we are at a threshold in deciding how to preserve our coastal lands while also protecting the local infrastructure of coastal towns and villages. What threshold are you referring to?

A: We are extremely fortunate in North Carolina that our forefathers recognized the wild and changing character of our coastal system and made critical decisions to set aside large portions of our barrier islands as national seashores, state parks, wildlife refuges, etc. Similar resources have largely disappeared in most other states. This availability of wild public lands is one of our strongest assets and attractions for today’s tourist economy. Our private barrier islands are quickly being “built out” with high-dollar developments that dominate the high-hazard ocean, inlet, and estuarine shorelines. Only about 12 miles of urbanized shorelines were routinely nourished with new sand prior to the 1990s and most were highly subsidized by the federal and state governments. Today, as shoreline recession continues in response to long-term sea-level rise and associated storms take their toll, the communities along about 124 miles of N.C.’s ocean shorelines want new nourishment sand for their beaches. But the governments are no longer capable of subsidizing this exercise in futility, particularly when the average beach nourishment project in N.C. only lasts between 1.75 and 2.5 years. Now there is a new law passed by the N.C. Legislature to allow hardening of our inlet shorelines. Our coastal tourism bubble is beginning to feel the consequences of long-term change–we have reached the threshold. The cost of “holding the line” is rapidly escalating.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges we are currently facing in dealing with coastal erosion and deterioration of the ecosystem?

A: One of the biggest challenges is public education concerning the dynamics of our coastal system, which cannot be adequately managed without this understanding. For example, the population generally does not understand that shoreline erosion is the direct product of long-term sea-level rise, which has been ongoing for the past 18,000 years. As the Earth’s climate warms, the vast continental ice sheets melt and recede. Waters flow back into the world’s oceans, causing the sea level to rise. In response, the mobile coastal system has had a long journey migrating upward and landward from its starting point on the continental slope, about 410 feet below and up to 60 miles east of its present location. This history will continue as long as our climate continues to warm. To maintain a viable coastal economy and preserve the natural resources upon which that economy is dependent, the public, our managers, and politicians must understand and adapt to the natural dynamics of change on a mobile coastal system. The present approach of unlimited economic growth and development will result in ever-increasing conflicts and catastrophes.

Q: Should we continue to urbanize the coast? Can we afford the environmental costs if we do?

A: Much of the U.S. coast has been totally “built out” with walls of massive condominiums, hotels, rental mansions, extensive seawalls, boardwalks, and gambling casinos. This is one kind of tourism and there are abundant destinations for those desiring this from their coastal system. But the natural North Carolina coastal system is spectacular without an equal anywhere in the world, and, at present, is not totally “built out.” We don’t have to compete with New Jersey or Florida. Let’s recognize the real value of our resource; people will come because of the vastness, beauty, and high-energy character of this unique coastal resource. We should embrace the historical culture and the wild remoteness and parlay those attributes into our economic advantage.

Q: You mentioned that your colleagues project a potential rise in regional sea level of 39 to 55-inches by 2100. What would be the ramifications of this sea level rise?

A: There will always be ocean and estuarine shorelines, with rising sea level they just won’t be in the same place. If we are determined to maintain the status quo by hardening the ocean, inlet, and estuarine shorelines with either engineered structures or increased urbanization, we will not only prevent the coastal system from evolving, but will rapidly increase our “disaster-based economy.” This will include ever-increasing catastrophic storm events, increased loss of sand beaches and associated wetlands, and deteriorating estuarine water quality and associated fisheries. However, if we allow the barrier islands and estuaries to respond naturally to the ongoing rise in sea level and storms, we can continue to have a thriving tourist economy with a healthy, high energy, mobile coastal system “by adapting to and living with the coast.” Then the entire coastal system will continue to migrate upward and landward in a slow and systematic fashion. The estuarine shorelines will continue expanding by erosion; the estuarine water bodies and their marshes and swamp forests will migrate up their respective river valleys. The simple barrier islands, which are dominated by inlets and overwash dynamics, will migrate landward by rolling over their shallow back-barrier shoals like a tank tread, or will back-step over the deeper water estuaries and build anew on the mainland shoreline.

Q: This account details the development of the Carolina coastal plain since pre-historic times. Why was it important to provide in-depth historical context?

A: Understanding the dynamic interactions of the modern coastal system allows us to interpret our past history that is recorded in the sediments and rocks in the subsurface of the coastal plain and continental shelf. It is this historical record that represents a long-term chronology of how our continental margin and coastal system evolved over time. For example, several times during the past few thousand years, large portions of our present Outer Banks collapsed into vast shallow shoals, causing Pamlico Sound to become an ocean embayment. The last time large portions of the barrier islands collapsed was about 1,100 years ago (~900 AD), probably in response to an extra intense period of storm activity. This condition lasted until about 500 years ago (~ 1500 AD), when the barrier islands we know today reformed, enclosing Pamlico Sound as an inland estuary. The geologic record is like a book of our historical evolution and represents the major basis for predicting the future–if the barrier islands have collapsed in the recent past, then there is a high potential that it can happen again in the near future.

Q: This book contains 41 illustrations and 31 figures. How do these visual aids assist in the reader’s understanding of the written material?

A: Illustrations and figures help to clarify and simplify the science, as well as to document what is presently happening to our coastal system–this is the evidence that change is the only constant within this dynamic system. Over the last few decades, many hundreds of houses, hotels, and roadways have been lost to the ocean in storms. Today, there are hundreds of structures that were not built in the water but are now surrounded by broken walls of sand bags and located in the surf zone; this is pretty strong evidence of the ongoing processes of change. The illustrations and figures show the changes and help to tell the story of why and how fast these changes are taking place.

Q: This is a subject that has been in the news a lot lately. What sorts of topics and questions surrounding erosion and preservation are not currently being discussed? What does your book add to this current discussion?

A: We seem to think the coastal system, like the Appalachian Mountains, has been in place forever and will continue to be far into the future. The status quo of unlimited growth and development, similar to that which occurs in Raleigh, doesn’t work in a dynamic coastal system. We must begin to create a new paradigm for “living with the coast”–a paradigm that does not require the unending process of engineering bigger protective measures requiring massive subsidy programs for some of the most hazardous property in the world. The following topics concerning the future of North Carolina’s coastal system, and representing a major part of our book, are generally not part of discussions taking place in the regional political arenas, management circles, or within the public domain.

  1. The natural dynamics of sea-level rise, evolutionary change, and the concept of adaptation to the ongoing processes of change.
  2. Alternatives to massive, fixed ocean-front businesses and structures.
  3. New paradigms for evaluating, owning, and utilizing the high-energy, ocean- front and inlet shoreline properties.
  4. Replacement of the automobile and fixed infrastructure of bridges and roads with mainland parking, high-tech ferry network system, and rental business for non-invasive, small-scale transport systems.
  5. Building and integrating a sustainable eco-tourism industry around the history, culture, and natural science that integrates the entire coastal ecosystem.

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