Four ECU experts on coastal dynamics have written a new book, “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast.” They are, left to right, Stanley Riggs, Dorothea Ames, Stephen Culver, and David Mallinson, all of the Department of Geological Sciences. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

ECU experts pen book on North Carolina’s coast

ECU News Services

North Carolina’s barrier islands, a 325-mile-long string of narrow sand islands that forms the coast of North Carolina, are one of the most beloved areas to live and visit in the United States. However, extensive barrier island segments and their associated wetlands and estuaries are in jeopardy. In a new book, “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast,” four experts on coastal dynamics, from East Carolina University, examine issues that threaten this national treasure.

According to the authors, the North Carolina barrier islands are not permanent. Rather, they are highly mobile piles of sand that are impacted by sea-level rise and nor’easter storms and hurricanes. Present development and management policies for these changing islands are in direct conflict with their natural dynamics, the authors assert in the book.

“The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis, and Vision for the Future” offers a hopeful vision for the coast’s future if the state’s residents are willing to adapt to the barriers’ ongoing and natural processes.

The authors are members of the geological sciences department at ECU. Stanley R. Riggs is distinguished research professor and Harriot College Distinguished Professor; Dorothea V. Ames is research instructor; Stephen J. Culver is Harriot College Distinguished Professor and chair; and David J. Mallinson is associate professor.

Published by the University of North Carolina Press, the book is seen as a call to action to North Carolina’s coastal economy but is applicable to other states and countries as well. “If you are a member of the human race, you are part of our target audience,” Riggs said in an interview with UNC-Press.

“As the world population increases, the demands for space and resources increase dramatically. It becomes increasingly imperative that all of society understands the character, dynamics, and resources of our planet earth. Even though this book deals primarily with North Carolina’s coastal system, it is a case study in which the basic concepts are directly applicable to coastal systems all over the world,” he said.

Riggs began his doctorate work in Montana studying ancient coastal deposits in the Western Interior Seaway, which existed during much of the Cretaceous Period (from about 145 to 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were still living on the earth). As a student in Montana, Riggs said he and classmates spent time studying those ancient coastal deposits and taking field trips to study the modern Pacific, Gulf and Atlantic coastal systems. He began working on the marine geology of Florida in 1962 and worked his way up the coast to North Carolina by 1964. ECU hired Riggs in 1967 to help develop the marine geology program and he’s been working as a marine and coastal geologist in many parts of the world since then.

The book also discusses the link between coastal tourism and the importance of protecting the coast’s natural resources to allow economic sustainability and growth in the region.

“Our vision for the future of North Carolina’s coastal system and associated economy is based upon ‘living in harmony with the coast.’ The vision for the coastal system of southeastern N.C., which is already largely urbanized, presents ‘islands of opportunity’ for adaptation to change. This discussion should begin now, so that as the never-ending stream of storms take their toll, we can systematically begin adapting to the changing conditions,” Riggs said.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are rapidly becoming a natural “string of pearls” with villages connected by a series of vast shoals, Riggs said. In that context, Riggs said the question becomes whether to rebuild the Oregon Inlet bridge and try to maintain a fixed highway on the narrow, mobile barrier islands or should the state adapt a new high-tech ferry system that would connect all the Outer Bank villages?

“This would produce eight Ocracoke-style destination villages that can build upon the culture and history of the Outer Banks and interconnect with a new and sustainable mainland eco-tourism based within N.C.’s ‘Land of Water’ with its estuarine shorelines of vast marshes, mysterious swamp forests and meandering black-water streams,” Riggs said.

Riggs and his colleagues project a potential rise in regional sea level of 39- to 55-inches by 2100.  “There will always be ocean and estuarine shorelines; with rising sea level they just won’t be in the same place,” Riggs said.

Instead of building engineered structures or increased urbanization hardening the shoreline, Riggs and his colleagues suggest allowing the barrier islands and estuaries to respond naturally to the ongoing rise in sea level and storms. “(If we allow that response), we can continue to have a thriving tourist economy with a healthy, high energy, mobile coastal system by adapting to and living with the coast,” he said.


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“The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis, and Vision for the Future,” The University of North Carolina Press, publication date: Sept. 5, 2011. For additional information, visit