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Outer Banks national seashores could lose $2 billion to rising seas

Everything at Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores will likely be either inundated or more vulnerable to damage from storms and flooding as the seas rise by one meter over the next 100 to 150 years, a new study says.
Everything at Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores will likely be either inundated or more vulnerable to damage from storms and flooding as the seas rise by one meter over the next 100 to 150 years, a new study says. cseward@newsobserver.com

With the seas expected to rise 1 meter higher over the next 100 to 150 years, a new study says the two national seashores on North Carolina’s Outer Banks risk losing buildings and other National Park Service assets worth more than $2 billion.

The national study finds that low-lying seaside parks in the Southeast are the most susceptible to damage out of 40 National Park Service sites on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Everything at Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores will likely be either inundated or more vulnerable to damage from storms and flooding as the seas rise by about 3 feet.

“It’s not saying those parks are gone,” said Rob Young, a Western Carolina University geology professor who helped direct the study for the National Park Service. “But if we have a meter of sea level rise, there certainly won’t be any part of those parks that won’t be vulnerable to the next storm.”

The study will help park service officials decide how to respond to sea-level rise and climate change in the coming decades.

“A lot of this focuses on some of the larger cultural resources that the park service has stewardship responsibility for – lighthouses, large forts, cemeteries,” said Rebecca Beavers, a Park Service coastal geologist based in Colorado. “We need to carefully consider what our next steps would be for assets at risk.”

The estimate of 1 meter of sea-level rise over the next century is widely shared among climate scientists, though that’s a global average and the actual change could vary from place to place. Not only does melting ice contribute to the level of the world’s oceans, but warmer temperatures also cause the volume of water to expand.

The 196-page report includes partial inventories of the most important park service assets likely to face damage from the rising sea, and the National Park Service has estimated a replacement value for each item. It’s a reminder that the national seashores are more than surf and sand dunes.

The priciest property on the list is the 17th Century Castillo de San Marcos, a national monument on the Florida coast. The fort’s value is pegged at $26 billion – accounting for more than half of all the potential losses, $41.7 billion, calculated for parks and national monuments and seashores in the study.

“It’s a little bit artificial to propose a current replacement value for something that’s irreplaceable,” Young said. “But it’s part of the way they characterize the importance of the things they have to spend money to take care of.”

Some of the line items in the report are ambiguous. Beavers and Young could not provide details of the most expensive asset listed for Cape Hatteras, “Bodie Island Maintained Landscape,” with a current replacement value of $499 million. It wasn’t clear whether that item includes the Bodie Island lighthouse. The report does not have a separate listing for the iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Ocracoke Pony Pen

Included with Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the report are Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in Manteo and Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills.

From the total Cape Hatteras valuation of $1.17 billion, here’s a sampling of park service assets that might need replacement or protection from the rising seas in coming years:

▪ At Ocracoke – Pony Pen Corral, $10.7 million. Ocracoke Lighthouse, $3.57 million.

▪ At Fort Raleigh’s Waterside Theater – Housing, $13.5 million. Amphitheater, $12.4 million. Costume shop, $1.4 million.

▪ At Wright Brothers Memorial – Pavilion and hangar building, $12.6 million. Monument pylon, $7 million. 100th anniversary bronze sculpture, $292,566. Four First Flight landing markers, $23,702 apiece.

▪ At Hatteras and Bodie islands – Rodanthe pier, $1.1 million. British Cemetery, $315,297.

▪ Cape Lookout’s asset risks are valued at $879 million.

“These barrier island parks in the southeastern United States are far more exposed than Cape Cod or Acadia, places like that in the Northeast,” Young said. “But anybody who knows the Outer Banks knows that everything is pretty much in trouble there now. It shouldn’t really be that shocking.”

National Park Service study online

The new study, “Adapting to Climate Change in Coastal Parks,” is online at http://go.nps.gov/coastalassets.

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