12 has an uncertain future in an era of rising seas
By CATHERINE KOZAK
along the edge of the continent on a two-lane highway built atop a
skinny strand of shifting sand just inches above two mighty bodies of
water might sound adventuresome in travel guides.
adventure can turn hazardous on a nasty day in the Pea Island National
Wildlife Refuge. Sand swirls in angry gusts across the road, vast pools
of water --- from sky, ocean, sound or all of the above --- force
vehicles to crawl, turn around or stall. Dunes appear to transform into
living things, buffeting a pitiful strip of asphalt from monstrous
for residents of the Outer Banks, driving on the 65-miles of Highway 12
on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands is an economic necessity and a
transportation challenge. Tourism brought $834 million into Dare County
in 2010, and most islanders make their living from tourist-related
severe cuts in the road in and on the south edge of the refuge
inflicted by Hurricane Irene in August were the most recent
illustration of the corridor’s vulnerability to beach erosion and storm
damage, renewing questions about the futility of fixing such a
vulnerable highway, especially in an era of a rapidly rising sea.
cost of maintaining Pea Island has been incredibly expensive,” said
Stan Riggs, a geology professor at East Carolina University. “If the
public knew how much has been spent just to hold that road, I think
has spent his professional life researching the natural dynamics of the
North Carolina coast. Few people know more about the coast’s geology.
Riggs has written numerous books on coastal geology, including “The
Battle for North Carolina’s Coast.” The recently published book argues
that the present development and management policies for the coast’s
changing barrier island are in direct conflict with their natural
agrees that a transportation route for Hatteras Island is a necessity.
But sea level rise is expected to accelerate in the future because of a
changing climate, he says. That means only worse problems for Highway
12, Riggs noted. It’s time, he said, for people to get creative.
“We need a
whole new paradigm,” he said.
Will She Rise?
in a warming climate. Water expands as it heats up, and melting
glaciers add to the oceans’ volume.
much scientists know. How high the sea might rise in the future or how
quickly are still open to debate. That will depend largely on how much
of the Arctic ice cap melts and how quickly.
of its gently sloping coastline, North Carolina is one of the most
vulnerable states on the East Coast to sea-level rise, scientists say.
Most current scientific estimates put the Atlantic Ocean along our
shores about three feet higher than it is now by 2100. That’s about
double the historic rate of sea-level rise. A panel of scientific
experts that advises the state’s Coastal Resources Commission came to a
similar conclusion last year in its original draft report on future
sea-level rise. It concluded that the rise would be about 39 inches by
2100. Depending on how much or how little is done to address climate
change, the rate could potentially be as low as 18 inches per 100
years, or as high as 55 inches.
follow-up draft was watered down significantly after intense lobbying
by development interests. The commission is awaiting a response from
its scientific panel before deciding on a final report.
policymakers ponder, the ocean continues its inexorable rise, putting
that thin ribbon of asphalt known as Highway 12 in greater jeopardy and
its future in greater question.
opposed to doing something out there,” Riggs said. “Our point is, we
know what the science is.”
one breach in Pea Island, about six miles south of Oregon Inlet,
Hurricane Irene cut about 150 feet from the road, channeling surging
water from ocean to sound. Further south at Mirlo Beach, the
storm destroyed whole sections of roadbed with a surging
has long predicted that those areas, especially at Mirlo, could become
new inlets, but Irene was a weak hurricane that barely kicked up waves.
Even weak storms, scientist warn, can have catastrophic effects as the
oceans warm and rise.
was all on the backside, and those inlets blew out, not in,” Riggs
said. “And all that destruction was because the water couldn’t get out.”
the blessing of Gov. Bev Perdue, the N.C. Department of Transportation
went into high gear to get the road reopened to traffic. Emergency
ferries transported supply vehicles, utility trucks and, eventually,
some of stranded residents back and forth between Stumpy Point and
weeks, a temporary, $2.6 million steel truss bridge was installed over
the breach in Pea Island, and road workers repaired the underbed and
repaved Highway 12 at Mirlo Beach. The highway reopened Oct. 5, but DOT
already has had to reinforce the new inlet’s south shore with rock and
metal sheet piling to stem erosion that could have undermined the
solutions at the north end at Mirlo, where erosion is as much as 15
feet a year, include building a bridge within the easement and building
a bridge that extends into the Pamlico Sound. At the Pea Island Inlet,
options are to build a new road or bridge west of the existing road, or
build a permanent bridge where the road now stands.
fixes proposed by DOT at both sites initially included beach
nourishment, either by itself or combined with bridging, But after a
December meeting of state and federal agency representatives, DOT
decided it was not a viable option because offshore sand sources were
inadequate, it was too costly, and permits would be difficult, if not
impossible, to obtain.
the suggestion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager of the
refuge, DOT agreed at the December meeting to look into the feasibility
of a longer, seven-mile bridge that would start north of the Pea Island
breach, curve out into Pamlico Sound and tie-in at Rodanthe.
comment on the proposals closed in January, and DOT is expected to make
a recommendation on an alternative within weeks.
the choice, DOT remains committed to keeping the coastal thoroughfare
12 is just like any of our highways that has its own challenges,” said
Victor Barbour, DOT’s technical services administrator. “But I do think
from an overall perspective, we have some roads in the mountains that
cost as much or more as N.C. 12 to maintain.”
Barbour agreed that maintenance of Highway 12 is more expensive than an
average road. Over the last 10 years, he said, DOT has spent $100
million maintaining 120 miles of the highway stretching from Corolla to
Ocracoke. Although the cost has not been broken out per mile, there’s
no doubt that the vast majority of work is concentrated south of Oregon
Inlet. So far, Barbour said, Hurricane Irene damage has cost $12
million, much of it paid by federal emergency funds.
to information in the final environmental impact statement for
replacing the aging Herbert C. Bonner Bridge at Oregon Inlet, DOT spent
about $5.5 million to restore Highway 12 after storms between August
1999 and October 2007. Of that, about $3.9 million was spent within the
Pea Island refuge at three “hot spots, ” including at ‘S’ Curves,
renowned as a premier East Coast surfing spot.
of the costs were related to Hurricanes Dennis, Bonnie and Floyd in
1999 ($1.7 million) and Hurricane Isabel in 2003 ($1.2 million). Over
that period, there were six hurricanes, one tropical storm and 13
nor’easters that required clean-ups.
the Bonner Bridge
Island National Wildlife Refuge has some of the most pristine beaches
on Outer Banks. Not only do residents love to go there, the refuge
attracts about 3 million visitors per year. But it’s not a
substantial land--- just 13 miles long, the refuge is at its widest
only one mile east to west. At its narrowest, it is just a quarter mile
the old days, the ebb and flow of the tide was unrestricted. Now, Riggs
said, “the whole system is in danger of being blown out.”
groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the refuge,
favored a 17.5-mile bridge to replace the aging Herbert C. Bonner
Bridge over Oregon Inlet that would have bypassed Pea Island and its
troublesome hot spots. DOT took the proposal off the table because of
its high upfront cost and access issues. Construction of the new bridge
just west of the existing one is scheduled to begin in early 2013.
Stewart, a refuge biologist who is a member of a Highway 12 coastal
scientist panel that has advised DOT, said that Fish and Wildlife is
working cooperatively with DOT to find mutually acceptable fixes to the
highway. Although Mirlo is mostly outside of the refuge, the hot spot
area stretches from “S-Curves” on the south end of the refuge into
said he has seen Pea Island narrow over the years. When he first
started in 1994, Highway 12 was located east of a ranger’s building, a
40-vehicle parking lot was east of the highway, and a double dune line
was east of the lot. All that’s gone now, he said.
that came rushing back toward the sound shoreline when Irene passed
turned out to be a powerful punch at a weak spot.
almost like a tsunami,” Stewart said. “Hurricane Irene
totally convinced me that it’s a fragile system.”
a coastal engineer with North Carolina Sea Grant, Spencer Rogers ---who
is also a member of the Highway 12 coastal panel --- said that despite
the overall success of road relocation in the past, Fish and Wildlife
will no longer permit that remedy. Another challenge to maintaining the
corridor in the future, he said, is the near-impossibility of fixing
the road within the 100-foot state right of way, as required by the
Coburn, associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed
Shorelines at Western Carolina University, said that it all boils down
to allocation of sparse resources
there’s an unlimited amount of sand and an unlimited amount of money,
absolutely you can keep a road open there,” he said. “If you had
unlimited resources, you probably wouldn’t have had a breach. But you’d
have to deal with the potential environmental impacts of what you did
to maintain that road.
tough,” Coburn said. “It’s almost an impossible situation to be in.”
convinced that there will be little other option in the not
-too-distant future, supports use of high-tech ferries – an idea that
is anathema to Dare County and one DOT says would be
impractical-- combined with things like water taxis or float planes
that have been used successfully in other coastal regions.
we’ve survived just out of sheer luck,” Riggs said “The next big storm
is going to be a catastrophe.”
March: What will the Outer Banks look like?
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)