Outer Banks and then some

I recently had a chance to travel to the Outer Banks, a string of barrier islands along the coast of North Carolina. There was an elemental feeling to standing on the beach at Nags Head with the waves crashing against the breakwater just a few yards away, the sea foam rushing around my calves as the suction of the current pulled the sand from beneath me. I like seeing these geophysical processes up close – it is easy to forget that the beach is just millions of crustacean shells ground to particles by constant friction and the alchemy of sea water in the thundering surf, punctuated by larger remnants retaining their shape but their edges smoothed and colors dulled. Day to day life in an urban center, spending a majority of my time in climate-controlled offices, cars, and homes, interrupted by small patches of green space and highly-managed nature in the form of city parks and yards and potted plants can make one forgetful that natural processes on larger scales still exist, and exert tremendous dynamic force. Even with all the development of the Outer Banks beachfront – hotels, condos, roads, stores, lots of pavement and piers and breakwaters, and even attempts to cheat the Atlantic by replacing sand on beaches to rebuild them – the ocean’s erosive, transformational character in its encounter with the shore is not within our power to control.

Farther south, miles from the encroaching development of vacation homes, shopping plazas, and miniature golf, the landscape resists even more directly and successfully human efforts to shape and control it. Sand blows across the road as the Atlantic winds whip across the shoreline, piling dunes that tumble over themselves and shift day by day. In some stretches of highway, the ocean’s violence is separated from the relative calm of the Pamlico Sound by just a few dozen meters of sandy ground with a ribbon of road running along the dunes’ leeward side. A hurricane could fundamentally alter the shape of these islands: winds, waves, and storm surges could cut a new inlet, inundate the highway, wash away a fishing pier, reorder the dunes, tear the roof from every home in that new subdivision. People do live here, of course, and thousands more come every summer, though the towns become considerably smaller as one continues southward. Family names on roadsigns and businesses appear again at the lighthouse museum and in the tales of the lifesaving stations that were once located every seven miles along the islands and which dragged the living and the dead from shipwrecks. It’s not for nothing that this stretch of coast is called the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Six hundred or more sunken boats litter the shoals and ocean bottom along this stretch of coast, downed by storms, shifting shoals, and war. The lighthouses of the Outer Banks, including the famous Hatteras light, 12 stories high with its curving black and white stripes, helped save many lives and provided a luminary witness to the often deadly encounter between sea and land in the inky darkness of a coastal night. The Hatteras lighthouse is not where it originally stood, however, as erosion and saltwater intrusion threatened the structure and its foundation as the island’s coast eroded. Barrier islands are dynamic, the constant wind and wave action moving them steadily back across the sound and toward the mainland, so that by the late 1990s the Hatteras lighthouse stood just 150 feet from the shore, much closer than the 1500 feet that separated it from the sea when constructed in the 1870s. A bold but controversial attempt to move the lighthouse was undertaken in 1999, and succeeded in lifting the entire structure off its foundation and moving it almost three thousand feet to a new, modern foundation and out of the Atlantic’s reach, at least for another few generations. I am not usually moved by tales of technological prowess and engineering marvels, but I must admit, seeing the moved lighthouse up close in its environs impressed me a great deal. It would have been quite easy to tear down the old light and build a replica (or none at all, since GPS has made these structures useful primarily as backup systems and tourist attractions), but the dedication to the building and its history deeply mark the place and the people who live there. I heard about this a while back via a great edition of the podcast 99% Invisible, and it was fascinating to see the lighthouse up close, as well as the keeper’s quarters and oil house, which were also moved to maintain the intactness of the entire lighthouse system. Ships now rely primarily on remote satellite-based systems of geospatial information to locate and move themselves among the dangerous shoals off the Outer Banks, and modern lighthouse technology is automated, yet the old lighthouses structures often remain as important historical features of the shorefront landscape and as vital secondary systems of geolocation for shipping and small craft. This move may need to be repeated in another century, with sea levels rising, but it could also need to happen due to the general movement of barrier islands and normal processes of coastal erosion and seawater intrusion. But will there be interest and funding in 100 years to achieve what was in 1999 a significant feat of engineering?

By way of conclusion on this admittedly half-assed post, let me say, I have been to and fro a lot this summer, and that will continue for a while yet, and I have actual things to write and submit to journals rather than just post unreviewed here on the internet. I am also taking over as undergraduate program coordinator in my department starting July 1, though my term as one of the VPs of my local faculty association is coming to an end at the same time. You gain some time here, you lose some over there. Other quotidian family and home things intervene as well. The world is moving fast, and I am tempted to make my posts shorter and more responsive to current events, but I feel that the move to a ‘hot take’ blog on the geography of political and social events is inevitably a losing proposition, for me as author and for my reader(s). So I will write something soon about the potential looming disaster of a US-Canada trade war that will likely include American on “Canadian auto imports” that is set to profoundly upend and maybe crush the Windsor-Detroit-based auto industry, where auto parts may cross the border half a dozen times before landing in a finished automobile. The gaping blind spot in recent blowhard statements about trade from the current administration in the US, which  ignores or mischaracterizes the huge amount of international trade that is also intrafirm trade, says a lot about shifts in official strategic thinking as to geopolitical and geoeconomic visions and power, and the limits of populist economic nationalism. If this sounds jargony, that’s fine – it’s why I think it requires a longer post, and so it remains unwritten as the contours of this trade war have yet to fully unfold. I also have been meaning to write something weird about sci fi and dystopian landscapes or envisioning ‘other worlds’ but have never sat down to think it through. I’ll be lucky if I get two more long posts done this summer with other stuff coming at me, but for regular readers (I know there are at least a couple of you out there), stick with me and it’ll be worth it. And finally, here’s another great article I recently read that I wanted to share, titled “Hunting While Black”, by Jonathan Hall, a geographer at West Virginia University.