Extreme Weather Damage
Climate change is the greatest threat the national parks have ever faced. Nearly everything we know and love about the parks — their plants and animals, rivers and lakes, glaciers,…See more ›
The Outer Banks region of North Carolina is a popular vacation destination with three national park sites on its barrier islands:
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 30,000 acres of beaches, dunes, marshes and woodlands featuring three historic lighthouses
Cape Lookout National Seashore, a mostly undeveloped park, accessible only by boat, with wild horses and shorebirds roaming its beaches
Wright Brothers National Memorial, windy dunes where the first human-powered flight took place and where visitors can see replicas of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s early flying machines
Case Study: Portsmouth Village
The historic village of Portsmouth was once a thriving port town on a major trade route. Today, the 250-acre district is preserved as part of Cape Lookout National Seashore and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The village has long endured severe weather, but today, rising seas and storm surges threaten to inundate historic sites, including significant African American artifacts. Nearly a third of the small town was enslaved in the mid-1800s, and resources from this time period can help National Park Service staff interpret what the lives of both enslaved and free people were like during the village’s heyday. Researchers from two nearby universities are racing to document what they can before structures and artifacts are lost.
Together, these parks attract more than 3 million visitors a year and bring valuable tourism benefits to the tens of thousands of people who live in the region. The parks also serve as natural buffer zones, protecting communities from bearing the brunt of severe storms — but changing weather patterns threaten these important parks and the people who depend on them.
The climate crisis is causing warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea levels, which intensify storms and make these coastlines more vulnerable to damage and erosion. Wave heights during summer hurricane seasons have increased significantly since the 1970s and will likely continue to increase due to changing wind patterns and sea-level rise. Extreme storms damage historic structures and degrade beaches. Threatened and endangered sea turtles, which thrive in the region, depend on the islands’ dunes for nesting and could be harmed by more frequent storms and severe weather.
By the end of the century, if we do not act, the combination of sea level rise, increased storm intensity and shifting currents could cause some barrier islands to disintegrate and collapse completely.
If we hadn’t moved the lighthouse, we’d be regularly dealing with the wrath of the ocean pounding that lighthouse in tropical storms and hurricanes.
The problem is not unique to the Outer Banks. Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland and Virginia also suffers significant erosion and degradation. Virgin Islands National Park and the communities around it experienced severe damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. And in 2012, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on 24 U.S. states, as well as Jamaica and parts of Canada, devastating major urban areas and park sites and causing more than $70 billion in damage.
- Geophysical Fluid Dynamic Laboratory (GFDL). 2019. Global Warming and Hurricanes: An Overview of Current Research Results, Last Revised: Nov. 25, 2019. NOAA/Princeton University Forrestal Campus. LINK
- Caffrey, M. A., et al. 2018. Sea level rise and storm surge projections for the National Park Service. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/NRR—2018/1648. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. LINK
- Hansen K. 2017. Hurricane Irma turns Caribbean islands brown. Web resource of the NASA Earth Observatory. LINK
- Komar, P. D., and J. C. Allan. 2008. Increasing hurricane-generated wave heights along the U.S. East coast and their climate controls. Journal of Coastal Research. Vol. 242:479–488. LINK
- Moore, L. J., et al. 2007. Modeling barrier island response to sea-level rise in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. Coastal Sediments ‘07. LINK
- Pendleton, E. A., et al. 2005. Coastal vulnerability assessment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore (CAHA) to sea-level rise. Open-File Report 2004-1064. LINK