Tyrrell County sits just inland from North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier islands. With 3,600 people living and farming along 400 square miles, it’s an ecologically rich enclave. It also ranks No. 1 among 319 U.S. coastal counties facing long-term risk from rising seas. By 2100, according to a new study, 94 percent of Tyrrell's future population may be at risk from encroaching seawater.
The swelling ocean may threaten the homes of up to 13.1 million coast-dwelling Americans by the end of this century, according to the study published today in the journal Nature Climate Change. Led by Mathew Hauer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, the research is novel because it combines population projections with sea-level rise projections.
Tyrrell County leads the country only by percentage of its population at risk. The largest absolute numbers of people at risk are in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in Florida. These two areas would make up 25 percent of all people impacted nationally—or more than 3.5 million—if waters rise by 6 feet, which is the most extreme scenario the study's authors anticipated. That threat has made the southern Florida climate story the center of much attention in recent years. More than 100,000 people could be displaced in each of 31 counties in the 6-foot rise scenario.
But it’s in Tyrrell, and neighboring Hyde and Dare counties, where you can squint and see the future of the American climate change debate, which may turn on questions of economic influence as much as environmental risk.
Land, water, and weather are unified in Tyrrell. There are four black bears for every man, woman, and child, said county manager David Clegg. Much of the county is reclaimed swamp. It's the kind of place, Clegg said, where people commonly chat about things like “what’s going on with the tide, where the bears are, how many eagles did you see this weekend?”
The environment has been a labor of love ever since Tyrrell was founded in 1729. The county's land is now planted with potatoes, soybeans, and grain, but the rate of environmental change, and how people respond, will determine how resilient the lifestyle and economy are. “Issues surrounding livability in a place that’s so ecologically delicate—climate change fits in with that clearly,” Clegg said.
Some Tyrrell residents fear that because they are so few, they’ll eventually be treated differently than larger nearby counties or big cities. As the U.S. evaluates its flood maps, Clegg is wary that rural counties might be asked to rewrite codes or even not build in some areas. What if such measures aren't asked of equally at-risk places with greater economic muscle ? Is there a far-off scenario where Tyrrell residents have to relocate, when, for example, Newport News, Virginia, or the Outer Banks don't? “If they’re going to stay there," he said, "I’m not moving.”
Starting to move Americans around would get expensive. Small Alaska towns are already moving, the Nature researchers note, as warmer sea and air temperatures make their coastal lives impossible. The cost incurred there has been an estimated $1 million a person.
Dare County, just east of Tyrrell, includes the thin barrier islands of the Outer Banks. Duck is a small town in its north. Officially, just 369 people live there, but a couple thousand more dwell there as nonresidents, said Chris Layton, the town manager. In the summer tourist season, Duck's population swells past 25,000.
Erosion has become such a serious issue that Duck and two other towns have banded together to replenish the beaches with sand, without state or federal funding. The project is expected to last five years, when another treatment might be needed. That raises a central question for the local economy's future. How long can these towns rebuild their beaches in the face of rising seas? What if every five years isn't enough, and the beaches need renourishment every year? "At some point it's not affordable anymore," Layton said. Adapting to change will be instrumental where change can't be pushed away. Thus far, the movement to refresh the beaches is driven by concerned citizens, he said. And there's still plenty of work to be done on the western side of town, which faces Currituck Sound.
Some residents may not see the threat of change the same way their local governments do, research shows. Christine Avenarius, an anthropologist at East Carolina University, conducted interviews in 2013 and 2014 with residents of Tyrrell, Hyde, and Dare counties, about environmental and economic change. Her questions avoided scientific phrases that have become politicized in the U.S., such as “climate change” and “sea-level rise.”
Her project revealed a kind of schism within people who see that some kind of change is happening, but tend not to talk about it as scientists do. Avenarius found “a keen awareness of environmental change among residents,” she wrote. Residents in tourist-magnet Dare County talk mostly about erosion as the force reshaping the coastline; only 7 percent of the 210 Dare residents interviewed describe the change as “sea-level rise," which is currently proceeding at a rate of 1.5 feet per century, and accelerating, according to a gauge in the town of Duck.
Layton, the Duck town manager, knows the data. He knows that the pace of change, while high, can at least be projected relatively smoothly into the future. Policies can be written and rewritten. A bigger concern is storm damage, he said, which won't follow a predictable trend line, and is therefore harder to prepare for.
"I don't think we have a lot of climate deniers in Duck," he said. "We're not trying to scare people. We're just trying to tell people, this is what we know, and this is how we're trying to approach it."