Putting nature in its place

Erosion: On the Outer Banks and elsewhere, humans struggle to undo the work of wind and waves in reshaping coasts.

Medicine & Science

October 06, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

On the Outer Banks, a filigree of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, geography is only as permanent as the next big storm.

The width of the beach, the height of the dunes, the very shape, size and location of the islands themselves - all are up for revision. Hurricane Isabel proved that last month when it cut a new inlet through Hatteras Island and created a channel between the Atlantic Ocean on the east, and the Pamlico Sound on the west.

The 1,700-foot breach, which splits off Hatteras Village from the rest of its narrow island, is merely nature's latest redrawing of the Outer Banks, and one that itself will last only several months. Already, state and federal officials have decided to fill in the gap with dredged-up sand and rebuild Highway 12, the islands' only thoroughfare, atop it.

But some scientists protest that this quick fix merely treats the symptoms, not the ultimate problem: that nature rather than man should be allowed to shape the barrier islands.

"Barrier islands are a work in progress," said Orrin H. Pilkey, a Duke University coastal geologist who has long advocated letting nature take its course on the Outer Banks. "From a scientific standpoint, the policy should be to let the inlet remain. Inlets need to form, because you need cross sections for exchanging tidal waters between the ocean and the sound."

Left alone, barrier islands adapt to storm-induced changes, Pilkey said. Inlets form, old ones become clogged. Wind and water push sand over, robbing one side of the island but adding to the other, a sort of turning over that contributes to their natural drift westward, he said. In fact, mainland towns such as Beaufort and Morehead City are atop ancient barrier islands.

"This is how the islands migrate. The storm erodes the front side and builds up the back side," he said. "What I object to is, as soon as the sand comes over, we push it back to the beach."

The reason for that, of course, is that the islands are no longer undeveloped spits of land - there are homes, businesses and highways in the path of drifting sand and surging water.

That is why state and federal officials are rushing to fill in the new inlet, about 1 3/4 miles north of Hatteras Village. The breach has left village residents stranded and cut off from the rest of the Outer Banks. In addition to losing their stretch of Highway 12 to the north, the villagers lost the ferry that ran to Ocracoke on the island to the south - Isabel clogged and rendered that inlet impassable.

The Coast Guard has been delivering food and water to the village, and a temporary ferry is running from Hatteras Village northwest to Stumpy Point on the mainland. But at 3 1/2 hours each way, the ferry is impractical as a permanent solution, officials said.

"The other means aren't viable at this point," said Donna Moffitt, director of the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management. "Every option was looked at, and filling it in seemed the best route to go."

The dilemma is a familiar one along the East Coast, where states have long wrestled with two competing demands when it comes to their barrier islands.

Environmentalists say the islands should be left undeveloped and to their own devices. They provide unique habitats for a range of flora and fauna and serve, as their name implies, as barriers that protect the mainland by absorbing the brunt of storms coming off the Atlantic.

But beach-loving tourists and property owners say they, too, deserve their place on the sand - the homes, hotels and attractions that increasingly fill these narrow islands. State officials generally welcome the accompanying economic benefits.

"It would be better to just let inlets go, but that's not the reality today," said Stephen P. Leatherman, director of the International Hurricane Center and Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. "There's just too much economic value to beachfront property today. That's what's driving the economic engine in these places."

Leatherman, also known as "Dr. Beach" for his annual list of the best strands in the country, said states have put themselves in a constant battle against the natural tendencies of barrier islands. Many, for example, undertake massive beach renourishment projects to stave off the natural erosion that occurs over time. But these projects can be an expensive and often a losing battle as the new sand eventually erodes, to be replaced over and over.

"It's an ongoing proposition," said Leatherman, a former University of Maryland, College Park professor. "You're treating the symptom, not the disease."

The new inlet in the Outer Banks is the latest battleground in the man vs. nature struggle over the islands. Over the years, hurricanes and other storms have cut similar inlets in East Coast barrier islands and states have spent billions of dollars to fill them in, maintaining them as channels, or even move them to new locations.

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