How often do we actually think about where we live? As a Wilmington resident, it should be all the time. Our town is intrinsically tied to the coast, with multi-million-dollar beach-front homes, infrastructure and businesses that reside near floodplains and, therefore, are prone to be affected when disaster strikes. But what exactly are we doing to combat this? The short answer: not much.
Most of us have heard of sea-level rise threatening Wilmington and surrounding areas. With over 232,000 residents in New Hanover County, and a population still rapidly growing due to the influx of college students and retirees, Wilmington—like many other coastal towns—faces a dilemma. How does a community constantly threatened by the sea continue to flourish? While we may be aware of the problem, there isn’t much in play to deal with it.
To help educate the public, UNCW faculty and staff have teamed up across many departments to put together a diverse panel of experts on the subject. Department chairs and professors from physics, creative writing, film studies, environmental sciences and other subject areas have united in recruiting coastal science scholars who can help bring potential relief to this growing quandary.
The upcoming Coastal Resiliency Seminar—the fourth in a series—is scheduled to take place on January 30 at 6:30 p.m. in the Center for Marine Science Auditorium. Marine biologist and UNCW professor Dr. Chris Finelli, one of the event’s coordinators, says the main goal of the seminars is to “[bring] the people of Wilmington together.”
Topics for previous seminars have ranged from adapting to storms, to educational leadership to hurricane-resistant construction. The fourth seminar will focus on how rising sea levels directly affect property along the coast and put essential infrastructure in the path of destruction. Guest speakers will be Gilbert M. Gaul, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (as well as four-time finalist) for his investigative journalism, and Dr. Orrin Pilkey, a retired Duke University professor, author and local legend among the coastal science community. Both claim it is not a question of if but when we will need to retreat from the shorelines.
At the Center for Marine Science, Gaul will focus on Wilmington’s development and growth. In other words, how Wilmington can grow smartly.
“Wilmington is growing like a bad weed,” Gaul states. With many homes built near floodplains, residents of Wilmington witnessed firsthand the resulting damage during Hurricane Florence. Gaul claims that the rebuilding process is only buying time without considering a long-term plan. “What’s happening at the coast is probably the most dramatic example of what the future risks are of climate change.”
His most recent book, “The Geography of Risk,” focuses on the risk of construction along the shoreline and explores the issue in greater detail. A longtime resident of the East Coast, Gaul says he has watched the coast fill with no developmental plan. His goal is to stimulate the conversation of risk in coastal communities, as he addresses why real estate is built directly in harm’s way without consideration for potential property damage, even as it seems storms are only worsening with time. “Seventeen of the 20 most destructive hurricanes in history have all occurred within the last two decades.”
Pilkey knows firsthand how climate change affects coastal development. He witnessed the destruction of his parents’ home after Hurricane Camille in Waveland, Mississippi in 1969. “Global climate change will do two major things: raise the sea levels and intensify storms,” he states. “Those two things mean that homes built right next to the beach are in some trouble.”
Pilkey plans to discuss the recent announcement of a $237 million Beach Nourishment Project for Topsail Island and Surf City, a direct example of an effort to restore the beaches after the intense storms Pilkey warns of. The project is scheduled to take place in the spring and will be one of the largest nourishment projects, stretching over 10 miles along the East Coast. While the plan is a positive step forward, it is essentially a Band-Aid for a much bigger problem that is not being addressed—the need to retreat from the shoreline. Pilkey emphasizes the need for a plan. “The storm line erosion rate and storm damage rate are definitely going to go up.”
Public awareness of the matter is just starting to become more prevalent in our everyday lives. With our community still healing from Hurricane Florence, public knowledge of coastal resiliency has grown exponentially. With many educators, community leaders and citizens speaking out, it has become difficult to turn a blind eye.
He wants these seminars to keep a hopeful tone, despite the pressing feeling of impending doom. “If we can support people and provide basic necessities, then I think the rest of it can be worked out,” he states. He also wants UNCW to be a pillar of leadership for the region, especially in times of uncertainty.
In the meantime, Finelli suggests several ways to be mindful citizens of Wilmington and consider our own impact on climate change. That could range from weaning off of single-use plastics, to recycling, to creating a more sustainable lifestyle, to holding elected government officials accountable for how they protect—or fail to protect—the coast. In the words of Pilkey, “The future is here.”
February 18, 6:30 p.m. – Coastal Community Demography, at the Hannah Block USO/Community Center, 120 S. 2nd St.
Guests: Dr. James Johnson, William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Director, Urban Investment Strategies Center. Co-sponsored by the Cape Fear Council of Governments
March 19 — Paving a Path to Resiliency: What Every Community Member Needs to Know. Location, time and guests TBA
April 23 —Coastal Sustainability. Location and time TBA. Guests Carl Safina, ecologist, author and MacArthur fellow