Southeastern Section - 60th Annual Meeting (23–25 March 2011)

Paper No. 10
Presentation Time: 11:35 AM


RIGGS, Stanley R., AMES, Dorothea V., CULVER, Stephen J. and MALLINSON, David J., Department of Geological Sciences, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858,

North Carolina recently adopted a policy that there is a strong likelihood of at least 1 m rise in regional sea level by 2100. In light of this forecast, two questions arise concerning the future of coastal NC. Do we want, and can we afford, to continue towards full urbanization of our coastal shore zones with high-rise hotels, condominiums, and highways, along with the escalating dependency on shoreline hardening and beach nourishment? Or do we want a sustainable barrier island-estuarine system with a viable coastal economy that functions and thrives in harmony with increased rates of sea-level rise and possibly increased intensity and frequency of storms? This dichotomy defines the “battle for NC’s coasts”.

NC is dominated by three general types of coastal shorelines (complex-barrier islands, simple-barrier islands, and headland strandplains) and associated estuaries (drowned-river, open-embayed, and strip estuaries with their sediment bank, marsh, and swamp forest shorelines). Each system is characterized by its own set of variables and processes, of which sediment supply, paleotopography, storm dynamics, and the human component are the most important. These variables dictate how the shorelines and associated geomorphic systems will evolve in response to rising sea level.

There will always be a coastal system with ocean and estuarine shorelines, but shorelines will migrate and ecosystems will evolve. Trying to maintain the status quo through engineering fixed structures and ignoring natural limits to growth will ultimately cause the collapse of both the coastal economy and the natural resources on which it is based. How do we adapt to a moving coastal system? Our vision for the future of NC’s barrier island-estuarine system is one of adaptation and based upon understanding the dynamics of its origin and evolution. The vision is divided into three components: the NE and SE barrier islands (N and S of Cape Lookout, respectively) and the back-barrier coastal system including the estuaries, rivers, and adjacent upland shorelines. These components are named the "String of Pearls," "Islands of Opportunity," and "Land of Water," respectively.