The beaches of North Carolina's coastline face an ongoing threat: coastal erosion. Though mostly gradual and relatively unnoticeable over the course of a year or two, the rising sea level combined with a season of storms or hurricanes can cause anywhere from a few feet to hundreds of feet of this delicate shoreline being stripped away. Solutions are constantly being studied and discussed, but often, the solution to erosion can be just as damaging as erosion itself. While vacationers are all but guaranteed to enjoy decades of happy beach days in the future, the issue of coastal erosion and its potentially devastating effects on our shorelines remains on the minds of locals and visitors.
Coastal erosion is the wearing away of land or the removal of beach or dune sediments by wave action, tidal currents, wave currents or drainage. Waves generated by storms, wind or even fast-moving motorcraft traveling close to shore cause coastal erosion. Erosion may take the form of long-term losses of sediment and rocks or merely the temporary redistribution of coastal sediments. In other words, erosion in one location may result in a larger beach nearby, as the sand is veritably "moved" from one stretch of beach to another.
On rocky coasts, coastal erosion results in dramatic rock formations in areas where the coastline contains rock layers or fracture zones with different resistances to erosion. Softer rocky areas become eroded much faster than harder ones, and erosion on rocky coasts can literally take centuries of battering waves to make a noticeable impression.
On sedimentary coasts, however, like the beaches of North Carolina, coastal erosion typically poses more of a danger to human settlements like coastal towns and oceanfront structures than it does to nature itself, and human interference can also increase coastal erosion. For example, a town called Hallsands in Devon, England was a coastal village that was washed away overnight, an event thought to be caused by the dredging of shingle (beach gravel) from the bay in front of the village.
Erosion is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, throughout the course of history, erosion has directly led to the opening of new inlets and harbors and has created new feeding grounds for countless coastal species. In the long term and at a gradual pace determined by nature, erosion has gently changed maritime ecosystems in a positive way.
However, human interference, combined with global warming, can speed up the process of erosion with effects that may not have been intended by Mother Nature, and this is when erosion can be a concern.