Before arriving in Corolla, North Carolina, one of the 14 beach towns on the barrier islands, I was apprehensive of what I would find and say that might cause arguments amongst family and friends. Recalling what I was taught during my geology and ecology classes, the Outer Banks was always a prime example of barrier islands. These islands are always shifting, beaches are always eroding, and coastlines are always changing, as barrier islands are naturally inclined to do. Benefits of barrier islands include protecting coastlines along the main land from storm damages by absorbing wind and salt water, protecting wildlife and ecosystems.
When talking about human development in the Outer Banks, my professors usually take a tone of disapproval. From a geological and ecological point of view, building on barrier islands cannot be sustainable. Under normal circumstances, properties are at risk of falling into the ocean because of erosion. These islands lack fresh water and protection from storms. Lives and properties are particularly vulnerable during storms and hurricanes. Billions of dollars have been spent on developing the scenic beaches and vacation towns since the 1950s, when the construction of State Highway 12 began, bringing an influx of tourists. Piping clean water to houses along the 200-mile island chain, electrifying the islands, installing and maintaining septic tanks, managing and treating wastes, are just a few challenging things that make living in the Outer Banks expensive and unsustainable. These islands are also in hurricane pathways, where millions of dollars have been lost or spent due to property and beach destruction. These were the flaws that I saw even before I could smell the seawater as my husband and I drove towards a vacation rental home where a family reunion awaits.
During the week of fun in the sun, I realized that the Outer Banks is culturally and personally important for some people. This is a place where memories are made, new friendships formed, and love rekindled. Sunrises are shared with loved ones and strangers over a cup of coffee or tea. Peace seems achievable. Every day that I walked along the beach, the more I hoped that the islands would be saved.
Perhaps tourists are not aware of their environmental impacts during their stay on the beloved islands, but the locals and conservationists are concerned about the future of their homes and are fiercely protecting their way of life. Since the Outer Banks’ prime economy is based on tourism, it is difficult to force sustainable living under unsustainable conditions. While driving along the islands, there are signs that guide and educate vacationers about the wildlife and habitats that we share, watershed areas that are protected, environmental centers for research and/or education, several wildlife refuges and one state park. Despite the blatant message for conservation and protection of the islands, empty water and beer bottles could be seen in salt marshes, vegetation uprooted by curious children and pets, and lots of clean drinking water being used for all sorts of activities.
As peaceful as beach towns seem, there is rising tension amongst inhabitants and visitors. For the locals whose family originated on the islands, they feel the pressure by developers and vacationers that are encroaching on their land and resources. For wildlife enthusiasts, they are concerned about the few hundred wild horses that roam Corolla’s beaches and habitats that are important for migratory birds. Rising sea levels also result in rising tensions.
Solutions to the buckled and disappearing islands are meager. Sand is trucked in from elsewhere to replenish the beaches. Man-made dunes to protect roads and houses are hindering the natural flow of sand movements. There is certainly a need for investments, new technologies, and coastal practices to prepare for the changes in storm patterns and the rising sea.
My visit to the Outer Banks expanded my perspective of the human-environment relationship. When it comes to conservation efforts, you have to look beyond the geological and ecological factors. Human factors (physical, societal, economical, mental, emotional) are the driving forces for change. As a vacationer, I am not empowered to take part in conservation efforts of the Outer Banks. I did my best to properly dispose of my trash, be weary of where I step, and consciously decrease the amount of fresh water I use. What else can a vacationer do? Conservation organizations should take the opportunity to engage with vacationers and tourism-related businesses. Teach us how to be eco-friendly during our time on the islands. Talk to us about what we can do to help save the Outer Banks.
Peach, Sara. “Rising Seas: Will the Outer Banks Survive?” National Geographic. National Geographic, 25 July 2014. Web. 27 August 2014.