‘You can’t outpace Mother Nature’: The sorry tale of a beach home’s collapse into the ocean

On a warming planet, communities may have to adapt or move as the ocean creeps in

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Friday 13 May 2022 22:26 BST
North Carolina beach house collapses into ocean and floats away

In 2020, a three-bedroom oceanfront house in Rodanthe, North Carolina sold for just under $275,000, according to the real estate website, Zillow.

This week, as waves lapped on the stilts holding it above the beach, the property buckled and collapsed into the ocean.

It’s one of three houses along the Outer Banks of North Carolina to fall into the Atlantic this year — and officials warn that it’s likely not the last.

Bobby Outten, the administrator of Dare County where Rodanthe is located, told The Independent that the houses had been marked as uninhabitable because of prior erosion and previous storms. But for communities on low-lying barrier islands along the shore, these falling houses could also be a warning of the future on a warming planet with rising sea levels.

“If we were waiting for a wake-up call to say it’s here, I mean — there it is,” DJ Gerken from the non-profit Southern Environmental Law Center, told The Independent.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina, a string of barrier islands lining the state’s coast, were formed by changing sea levels. Over millions of years, rises and falls in ocean levels pushed sediments around the coast, forming ridges and rises, according to the National Park Service.

These islands are dynamic, the NPS explains. Much of the coasts are less than a few thousand years old, practically new in geologic terms, built and unbuilt by the wind and waves. Now, the islands are surrounded by oyster reefs and salt marshes rising into undulating sand dunes, Chris Baillie of non-profit North Carolina Coastal Federation, told The Independent.

It’s a beautiful landscape where people want to spend time — especially along the miles and miles of sand facing the Atlantic. While towns like Rodanthe aren’t as busy as more northern Outer Banks tourist areas, they still transform over the summer as people flood into short-term rentals, Mr Outten says.

Often, these properties are built as close to the water as possible — like the homes that have collapsed into the ocean. At least one of the ill-fated houses was available on a short-term property rental site.

For vacationers, the location is great: easy beach access. But the climate crisis is proving that, the closer you get to the ocean, the sooner you might no longer be able to ignore what’s coming down the pipeline.

As the world gets hotter, oceans are projected to rise. Sea levels along the US east coast are expected to rise by a couple feet by the end of the century. And that’s the best-case scenario, assuming the world drastically reduces emissions over the next few decades. In the worst-case scenario, the east coast is looking at over seven feet of sea level rise by 2150.

“Even if we completely stop emitting greenhouse gases right now, we still have quite a runway of sea level rise,” says Dr Baillie.

If sea levels were to rise by three feet, much of Rodanthe would be completely underwater, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But even before this potential catastrophe, increasingly higher seas will wash further inland during storm surges — helped along by more extreme weather also driven by the climate crisis.

Without development, more natural landscapes can adapt somewhat to changes in sea level and fluctuations of the barrier islands, Dr Baillie notes. But buildings and roads? Not so much.

“It’s just when we have to put these very stationary objects such as homes, that the natural processes of these barrier islands come into conflict with the desires and well-being of people,” Dr Baillie says.

As the seas rise and storms surge, more and more areas will be at the mercy of the ocean — and not just in North Carolina. Due the East Coast’s geography, coastal towns from New Jersey to Florida often sit at very low elevation, including on flat barrier islands like the Outer Banks.

While there are steps these places can take to protect themselves, there also may not be a perfect solution.

Beaches and dunes are naturally protective barriers, says Dr Baillie, so building further inland on the islands can help. But those spots are often still at low elevation and susceptible to higher sea levels.

Closer to the shore, one preventative measure is beach nourishment - where tons of sand are added back to the beach - or hardened structures like seawalls are built.

In urban coastal areas, cities can deploy hardened structures to keep the water at bay and reduce flooding. However that kind of constru is also both expensive and not feasible along the entire stretch of the coastline, Mr Gerken says.

Mr Outten, the Dare County administrator, says that while there is no beach nourishment in Rodanthe because of federal permitting issues (the area is along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore), the concept of beach erosion isn’t new.

If you understand erosion rates, and can afford to counteract that with sand, beach nourishment can work, he added - and that whensea levels rise, communities on the Outer Banks will continue to adapt and mitigate.

“We've been doing that since the Outer Banks has been lived on,” Mr Outten says.

However Dr Baillie called beach nourishment more of a “temporary fix”, and Mr Gerken described it as a “treadmill.”

“It’s a losing game,” Mr Gerken says. “You can’t outpace Mother Nature.”

There is another option but it’s probably the most fraught of all. Instead of trying to outrun the climate crisis, communities could just leave. Climate experts use the term “managed retreat” to describe a community’s planned relocation out of an area primed for disaster, such as a coastline.

The concept is starting to take hold in some communities across the country, with land buyouts in flood-prone areas. But it can be a particularly touchy subject, especially for communities with history and emotional connection to the land.

“A lot of homeowners along the coast are living in family property that’s decades old, or heirs property, that are in the path of rising seas,” Mr Gerken says. “And we need to approach those folks with empathy and try and find a solution that works for them.”

But without money to buy out property owners, managed retreat isn’t likely, Mr Outten says.

“We can't go on your property and tell you you have to take your house down and move out of your house,” Mr Outten says.

The point is not to blame people for building homes in these areas, Dr Baillie says — they were just following the rules that had been made. But we’re becoming increasingly sure that the sea level is rising, and it’s not something we can ignore any longer, he adds.

It’s not only people living on the Outer Banks facing the unpleasant reality of the climate crisis, either. US beach towns are full of vacation homes like the one that fell into the ocean this week for good reason — people love to visit.

People in the South love the beaches, and “assume they’re going to be there for generations to come, and they assume their children are going to get to enjoy them too,” Mr Gerken says.

It’s a hard realization that the world is changing, he adds.

“The truth is, we now have to start adapting to climate change.” Mr Gerken says. “It’s going to happen.”

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