The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse might have to be moved again as the Outer Banks sands near the Buxton point wane and gain.
The National Park Service on Monday marked the 20th anniversary of pushing the 4,800 ton tower more than a half mile southwest to save it from the encroaching ocean. It now stands about 1,500 feet from the surf, about a thousand feet less than it was when it was built in 1870.
The seas began pounding near its base within 50 years of its opening.
Could that happen again?
“Yes, absolutely,” said Stan Riggs, a coastal geologist and professor at East Carolina University. “It’s a changing system and we have to be resilient.”
The hope was that other seaside communities and states could learn from the $11.8 million lighthouse move. As the land shifts, it's better to move with it than to repeatedly nourish beaches or build hard structures on the shoreline, he said.
“We’re still building bigger and bigger houses on the beach,” Riggs said. “We have an incredible conflict. Humans versus the moving, dynamic barrier islands.”
Riggs has written books and articles, spoken at conferences and been quoted in the media for decades preaching against hardening North Carolina barrier island shorelines with jetties, dunes, roads and houses.
“It will survive,” he said. “It’s not going to go away. Let it breathe. Let it live.”
Many realtors, developers, elected officials and others disagree, pointing out at that millions of dollars in private property and the tourism economy must be protected. Thousands of people depend on it for their livelihood.
But the Outer Banks, particularly near the point in Buxton, is one of the most environmentally dynamic spots in the country, said Hatteras Island native Danny Couch, local realtor, business owner and historian.
“I do think it will have to be moved again,” Couch said of the lighthouse. “I know what I’m seeing. The old timers I talk to, they see it. They acknowledge it. Will it be in 50 years? It’s possible.”
If the beach erodes enough to threaten the lighthouse again, a lot of the rest of Buxton will also be in trouble, said Dave Hallac, superintendent of National Parks of Eastern North Carolina.
“We can never fully predict the rate of erosion,” Hallac said. “It’s a hard question to answer. It’s certainly possible.”
The sea level has risen two to three feet since explorers landed here in the late 1500s, Riggs said. The narrow strip of barrier island has migrated thousands of feet westward, according to surveys going back to the 1800s. Riggs has maps showing the lines of each survey.
N.C. 12 has been moved four times, according to Riggs’ historic maps. Curves in the road likely indicate a place where the road was shifted westward away from the encroaching ocean, he said.
The Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 cut a new inlet just north of Buxton. The inlet flow from the ocean created a delta on the sound side, Riggs said. A temporary wooden bridge built over the inlet did not last long, so crews dug out the delta to refill the inlet. The excavation left an area of open water that has become world renown for kite boarding.
Winter storms called nor’easters are the “big bullies,” he said. The north winds consistently push the sand southward along the entire Outer Banks.
Jetties built after the Ash Wednesday storm near where the lighthouse used to sit created a nose of land that juts seaward. The shoreline has hollowed out in places, a typical formation caused by jetties known as a cuspate shore, Riggs said.
Riggs opposes efforts to try to fasten the landscape down. Moving with it is better, he says, including a big brick lighthouse.