This Seaside Community Is Getting Swallowed by the Ocean

Rising sea levels are forcing those living in the Outer Banks to grapple with the impacts of climate change.

Photograph by John Tully
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Windblown sand at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is responsible for road closures and constant maintenance. The highway is a vital north-to-south artery and connects island communities. As the land narrows, however, taxpayers are increasingly paying to maintain or fully rebuild roads. In the town of Kitty Hawk, this same section of road collapsed twice within a few months in 2015, prompting 1,000 feet of sandbag wall. Maintenance and repairs have well exceeded $104 million.
Photograph by John Tully

Slowly but surely, North Carolina's Outer Banks are being eaten up by the sea.

The 200-mile stretch of islands that sits just off the coast is known for its idyllic beaches and thriving tourism, but scientists say those beaches are in jeopardy. Rising sea levels are forcing residents to grapple with a home that's slowly washing out from under them.

One 2010 report predicted that sea levels around North Carolina could rise 39 inches by 2100 as climate change melts glaciers and contributes to global sea level rise. Already, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality says, about six feet of costal land erodes every year.

These rising seas are making already unstable strips of land more erosive. The Outer Banks are shifting sandbars that naturally drift toward the coast. Each time a storm makes landfall, seawater carves inlets and deposits sand, spreading it across one side of the island while it erodes from the other like a slowly turning wheel.

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Sand encroaches the now demolished Beacon Motor Lodge in Nags Head, North Carolina. Oceanfront motels once dotted the landscape, but have been unable to compete with personal properties rented out by individual owners.

This slow churn promises to have life-altering impacts on the landscape and people who live there.

“Life goes on, and yet people are adapting to this new reality,” says photographer John Tully.

Looking for a fresh start in 2015, Tully moved to the Outer Banks and spent two years documenting the islands' slow march into the sea. His photos show the changing physical landscape and the people adapting to it. On roads near the shore, storms can stir up so much sand it eclipses the road.

Highway 12, the dominant road running through the Outer Banks, is cleaned and repaired on a regular basis. Many homes have been bolstered with stilts, and some have been picked up and moved farther inland.

For some who own beachfront property, the biggest concern is losing a vacation home, but other residents fear losing deep familial ties to the region. On some parts of the island, seawater has been known to floods cemeteries, threatening to uproot generations.

North Carolinians have debated how best to address encroaching seawater. Some have pushed to make rising sea levels an important factor in planning and development. Others have pushed for legislation dismissing these claims. Tully says those who live on the Outer Banks share a sense of community knowing they all face these creeping waters together.

“If they knew what to do, they would do it,” he says, but for now, the divided community is still waiting for a solution to stem the tide.

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When the Cape Hatteras Fishing Pier opened in 1962, it was 20 feet wide and 500 feet long. Years of storms damaged it beyond repair, and it closed to the public in 2010 after Hurricane Earl struck North Carolina.

John Tully is a photojournalist based in New Hampshire. His work explores the meaning of home. Follow him on Instagram @jtully