Climate change, the Outer Banks and cherished traditions

Jun. 12, 2014 @ 02:16 PM

Since before I can remember, my family has been spending Thanksgiving on the Outer Banks. The tradition started when my mom and her siblings were young, and it has grown to include generations of relatives who live all up and down the Atlantic coast. Every year of my life, my family has stayed in the same house on Cape Hatteras. Every year, that is, except for the last one.

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit the east coast unseasonably late in the year, causing flooding, erosion and millions of dollars’ worth of damage. Highway 12 was closed for weeks, and when it reopened, it was safe only for vehicles with four-wheel drive. Faced with the prospect of missing my only chance to see my all of my family in one place until the next year, I resigned myself to taking a series of ferries from the mainland (as did many of my relatives). We all got there safely, but traveling by ferry tacked an additional 18 hours onto what had been an easy trip every year before, and the extra travel was stressful for many of my family members.

After that year, we moved our reunions up north. It was still wonderful to spend the holiday with my family, but it wasn’t the same. The house on Cape Hatteras had grown to feel like home, and we were all sad that we had been forced out by the weather.

Although the kind of weather that hit the Outer Banks in November 2012 may seem extreme, it has become surprisingly commonplace. During the past 40 years, the Outer Banks has been rocked by an unusually large number of particularly intense weather events. Whenever one sweeps through, it takes the coastal community weeks to recover. The increased frequency and strength of these devastating storms is the result of global warming and associated climate change, and it is only getting worse.

Over the next few decades, sea levels along the Atlantic coast are predicted to rise by at least a foot, also due to global warming. The Outer Banks is incredibly vulnerable to any change in the surrounding waters, and the erosion that could occur because of an increase in sea level of this magnitude is immeasurably large. During my lifetime, the Outer Banks could become uninhabitable because of sea-level rise and extreme weather.

It is indescribably disappointing to me that a place where I have spent so many special times could be wiped off of the map because of a man-made phenomenon -- climate change. It is even more disappointing to me that although there are clear steps that we should be taking to prevent and adapt to climate change, we aren’t taking them because climate change has become a political and partisan issue. It was therefore encouraging to watch the EPA’s announcement of its plan to combat climate change last Monday. While it is clear we still have a lot of work to do to prevent catastrophic changes to the Earth’s climate, the Clean Power Plan is a strong step in the right direction.

I’m only 20, and my future is unclear, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that someday I want to start a family of my own. When I have children, I want to be able to pass on the traditions that defined by own childhood, especially the yearly pilgrimage to the Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks represented a number of things to me when I was growing up – family, tradition, the giving of thanks. I hope that by the time I have children there will still be an Outer Banks left to share with them.

Teresa Rosenberger is a senior biology major at Duke University.