The Outer Banks – an endangered place

My latest newspaper column:

A favorite off-duty place to explore during my years of Air Force Reserve duty at Langley Air Force Base, Hampton, Va., was the barrier island chain known as the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Not just for the wildlife, salty air and open spaces (at least on Cape Hatteras National Seashore), but also as a special place at which to watch wild nature at work. As it did when Hurricane Dennis made landfall there on Aug. 30, 1999. There have been others – many others – including Hurricane Isabel In September 2003 (www.outer-banks.com/isabel/). All this came to mind when I read a New York Times article about North Carolina Highway 12, the main drag connecting beach town after beach town (www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/science/highway-12-outer-banks-lifeline-is-under-siege-by-nature.html). Be sure and take note of the photograph you’ll see at this Internet page. The shattered chunks of asphalt were all that was left of the two-lane highway after that storm’s passage.

Reading that sparked me in turn, to get and read the new book “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast.” If your car carries one of those black-on-white “OBX” stickers, you too may want to read this title, especially before investing in beach property there.

What’s the big deal? The Web site Climate Central spells it out: “Global warming has raised global sea level about 8 inches since 1880, and the rate of rise is accelerating. Rising seas dramatically increase the odds of damaging floods from storm surges. A Climate Central analysis finds the odds of “century” or worse floods occurring by 2030 are on track to double or more, over widespread areas of the U.S. These increases threaten an enormous amount of damage. Across the country, nearly 5 million people live in 2.6 million homes at less than 4 feet above high tide — a level lower than the century flood line for most locations analyzed. And compounding this risk, scientists expect roughly 2 to 7 more feet of sea level rise this century — a lot depending upon how much more heat-trapping pollution humanity puts into the sky.”

Now, you can be a denier like U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., but the scientifically collected data illustrate what’s happening. I collected this paragraph from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “Warmer-than-average temperatures dominated the northern and eastern regions of the country in December, January and February, leading to the fourth warmest winter on record for the contiguous United States. The winter season was also drier-than-average for the Lower 48, with dry conditions experienced across the West and the Southeast but wetter-than-average conditions in the Central and Southern Plains and parts of the Ohio Valley.”

More clues are contained in the New York Times report, “Rising sea levels seen as threat to coastal U.S.” The link is http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/14/science/earth/study-rising-sea-levels-a-risk-to-coastal-states.html

With search help from Google, I found a document that paints a pretty dismal scene for another place on the coast of southeastern Virginia: Langley Air Force Base. That’s where I served, as a reservist, for more than 10 years and it’s where my retirement ceremony was held in May 2004. The document, a publication of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, illustrates the national security implications of our changing climate.

An excerpt: “Indeed, sea-level rise most likely represents the greatest climate change threat to Langley AFB. Nicholls et al. (2007: IPCC AR4 WGII Chapter 6) concluded (with very high confidence) that globally coasts were at increased risk for coastal erosion and other impacts as a consequence of sea level (rise). This global concern applies equally to coasts of the Mid-Atlantic region, Chesapeake Bay, and Langley AFB. Sea-level rise is a topic of concern for the Chesapeake Bay and the US Atlantic Coast more generally (e.g., EPA, National Wildlife Federation, USGS, Fish and Wildlife Service, Chesapeake Bay Program, US Climate Change Science Program, US National Assessment, Maryland Department of Natural Resources). It’s a pretty weighty reading experience, but if you want you can find it here: http://www.ornl.gov/sci/knowledgediscovery/Langley/docs/Langley_Air_Force_Base2.pdf

 

Also from the report: “Historically sea level in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic US has been rising faster than the global average, most likely because of local land subsidence . . . . The region’s land subsidence could add as much as 11 inches over global mean sea-level rise by the end of the 21st century . . .. Taken together, the higher rates of sea-level rise, potential contributions of unstable land ice, and regional land subsidence, suggest that an increase in mean sea level of (four feet) for Langley AFB and the southern Chesapeake Bay region is on the upper end, but entirely consistent with current projections of future sea-level rise.”

The report also found . . . “that ‘[r]ising sea level is causing saltwater intrusion into estuaries and threatening freshwater resources in some parts of the mid-Atlantic region.” Similarly, ’Ghost forests’ of standing dead trees killed by saltwater intrusion are becoming increasingly common in southern New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana and North Carolina.” With continued increases in sea level rise, those trends are likely to continue. Saltwater intrusion could put Langley freshwater resources at risk, depending upon the sources of that freshwater. Ghost forests or other altered vegetation could affect the aesthetics of Langley AFB.

Even more data is available from the U.S. Geological Survey at http://www.usgs.gov/climate_landuse/

And to learn more about how the planet’s changing climate is affecting wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers a wealth of information at http://www.fws.gov/home/climatechange/

The Service notes: “The unmistakable signs of a rapidly changing climate are everywhere — melting glaciers, heat waves, rising seas, flowers blooming earlier, lakes freezing later, migratory birds delaying their flights south. No geographic region is immune. . . Accelerated climate change is the single biggest threat to wildlife. It is impacting all ecosystems, habitats, and species — not just those identified as imperiled.”

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