When it comes to sea level rise damaging beachfront real estate, Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is the canary in the coal mine. The thin, sandy barrier island is infamous for losing houses to the sea whenever there’s a hurricane or strong tropical storm.
Now, before hurricane season even begins, houses in Rodanthe, south of Nag’s Head, are being swept out to sea. The National Park Service says three houses have been lost to the waves since February and another nine are currently at-risk of the same fate.
There are several factors contributing to the string of house collapses. A low pressure system swirling off the Outer Banks is sending powerful waves crashing onto shore. In addition, the barrier island has long experienced erosion due to regular wave action that gets worse whenever a hurricane or tropical storm hits or even passes close to the area.
Experts, however, have predicted that higher seas due to sea level rise would serve to intensify and speed up the erosion and house destruction, which only makes sense. Higher seas scour away sand more quickly and effectively. They also mean storm surges will travel further inland with more punch. In addition, the warming of the oceans and atmosphere due to climate change is super-charging hurricanes and tropical storms, which means they pack a stronger wallop.
Home loss on the Outer Banks is also due to the unique geology of barrier islands. In their natural state, the narrow sandy strands are meant to migrate inland as sea level rises. The Park Service is allowed to protect critical infrastructure, such as roads, but not houses. Even if the Park Service could take steps to shield the houses, such as building seawalls, nature would eventually break through the armor and sweep them out to sea.
It’s important to note here that scientists blame the loss of houses not only on natural forces but also the fact that humans never should have built the homes on shifting barrier island sand to begin with. Real estate owners and buyers need to carefully consider the consequences of owning real estate on barrier islands and beaches all along the US coast, especially now that sea level rise is in play. One thing’s for sure, houses toppling into the sea are going to become more common as the sea level rises and storms intensify in the decades to come.
(Photo Credit: National Park Service)