Land of Water
With every summer-fall tropical storm and winter-spring nor’easter, the Outer Banks barrier islands and Inner Banks villages and lowlands take a severe beating. These storms pack a punch for local economies that don’t thrive on change, and they leave the state of North Carolina struggling to repair the damage to tourism, fisheries, and agriculture—the region’s infrastructure. Yet, when coastal geologist Stanley Riggs’60 told me about these cycles, he was unsurprised. “You can’t take Raleigh, Charlotte, Chicago, or anywhere else to the beach,” he explained. “There are limits to what you can do on mobile sand piles and low wetlands.”
When Riggs began his work in this region in 1964, climate change research was still relatively obscure. It would be another 11 years before renowned geoscientist Wally Broecker introduced the phrase “global warming” in a scientific paper. Yet rapid industrialization following World War II was already making its mark on the coastal system, particularly on the barrier islands (see sidebar). Increased development there has led to an unfortunate cycle that Riggs calls the “perfect conflict” between natural processes and human modification. After storms, people pour huge amounts of money into rebuilding, only to have the process repeat itself.
It is a Sisyphean task, and, according to Riggs, an unsustainable one. Instead, he advocates for learning to live with natural dynamics and the economic imperatives of the area’s residents. He draws an analogy from the human body: Just as physical health can’t be achieved by focusing on just one organ, coastal conservation can’t be attempted without understanding how various scientific and cultural systems influence each other.
His time in the field has reinforced this notion. “We’ve gotten to a point where, as a species on this planet, we are as important a geologic force as volcanism, earthquakes, or storms.” He points out that drill cores into glaciers reveal distinctive marks of human industrial progress. The isotopic elements found in these ice layers tell us when the Romans began to mine and smelt metals, or when nuclear bomb testing was at its peak. “There’s an absolute and integral relationship between humans and our planet,” he adds. “You can’t do research on the last 10 to 15 millennia of Earth history if you don’t understand that.”
When he was young, growing up outside of Green Bay, Wis., Riggs would often find mastodon teeth and tusks while he explored local glacial deposits, a tangible result of the ice ages and changing climate. Later, he enrolled at Beloit, where he met two people who would shape the course of his life. The first was Ann Gray’60, an artist who became his wife and partner for 57 years and counting, and the mother to the couple’s two daughters. The other was the one and only Professor Emeritus of Geology Hank Woodard. Riggs describes Woodard as one of his “life heroes” and says that for him and for Ann, Beloit “opened the doors to the world.”
“Dr. Woodard took us on field trips to study the ancient coastal deposits of the St. Peter Sandstone that formed 450 million years ago in Southern Wisconsin as the result of an ancient ocean that existed during the Ordovician Period,” Riggs recalled. “Initially, the concept that Southern Wisconsin was the shoreline of a former ocean was hard to imagine.”
This fascination with the scope and scale of time propelled Riggs through a master’s program at Dartmouth, a Ph.D. at the University of Montana, and several years studying coastal geology around the Southeastern United States. He arrived at East Carolina University just after it received university status, as one of five hires for their brand new geology department. Riggs was initially hired to launch the coastal marine element of the program, and retired as a distinguished professor in 1999. In 2000, he was re-hired as a distinguished research professor to kick start an interdisciplinary research program on the origin and evolutionary processes of coastal systems.
Immersion is Riggs’ preferred method of teaching. He routinely leads field trips that allow groups to get up close and personal with these dynamic environments. Participants range from journalists to science teachers to average citizens who simply want to learn more about the natural world. Though he welcomes the chance to educate them all, Riggs has a particular interest in connecting with teachers. “If you can turn on a teacher, that teacher can turn on hundreds of students,” he says. He’s also deeply concerned with what he sees as a disconnect between young people and the natural world. “More of the kids of today are from urban environments and do not have the feeling for our Earth that most of the rural kids had 20 to 40 years ago,” he says.
Still, he doesn’t believe that all is lost. On the contrary, the last few chapters of the book focus on a variety of solutions that can protect the dynamics of the region while also promoting economic and cultural well-being. For instance, noting that some major roads are unsustainable for low wetland areas and eroding barrier islands, Riggs and his colleagues have proposed implementing a variety of alternative transportation models, including high-tech ferries that could safely and efficiently shuttle people between islands and villages. The first fleet of those boats is scheduled to debut in 2018, proving that the residents’ long-term visions of the coast are starting to shift. “It’s happening slowly, but it’s happening,” Riggs says.
Stephen Culver, a North Carolina geologist and co-author of The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast, has worked with Riggs since 1999. “I think the most important thing about the book is that it presents the science in such a way that the general public can understand it,” Culver says. “We wrote this book for everybody, including people of political persuasions, to help them understand not only that things are changing, but also the reasons why they’re changing.” He adds that this is an important attribute Riggs brings to the field. “He’s an everyman. He’s not some ivory tower guy. He gets muddy, he gets his feet wet. You get him in front of an audience, and he can be spellbinding. He’s a real communicator.”
Riggs’ passion has also influenced successive generations of Beloiters. John Huss’87 recalls experiencing it first-hand on a field trip to the Outer Banks as a Beloit student in 1986. “He was a guy who was always locked in a battle against false models of what was going on,” he remembers. Now a professor of philosophy at The University of Akron, Huss says his experience in the Outer Banks helped him to realize that the knowledge systems utilized by scientists are forever shifting and expanding, and that aspects of the world that once seemed unknowable are often discovered over time as new research and techniques develop.
Few people embody that process better than Riggs. In a 1983 acceptance speech for the O. Max Gardner Award (considered the University of North Carolina system’s highest faculty honor) Riggs said that “Geology’s contribution to society is its ability to make man aware of the underlying unity of the changing Earth system,” a philosophy he follows to this day. Though he technically retired from East Carolina University in May of 2017, he’s still hard at work with NC LOW.
For him, climate change and its impact have never been abstract or distant issues. Standing at the junction of economic growth, geological dynamics, and the realities of climate change, he doesn’t hesitate to weigh in—or wade in.
“The barrier islands are the toughest ecosystem on the planet Earth, and they’ll always be here, they just won’t be in the same place,” Riggs says. “What’s fragile is what we put on top of them. We can’t stop the storms or the ongoing rise in sea level, nor can we engineer stability in the coastal zone. But we can learn to live with the dynamics of ongoing change if we understand the science of change, which requires an educated public and leadership.”
Kiernyn Orne-Adams’16 is a writer currently based in Minneapolis, Minn.
Understanding the Land of Water
The NC LOW system is composed of 23 coastal counties in northeastern North Carolina. The area is defined by a series of major lowland peninsulas separated by rivers and larger water bodies or estuaries with their perimeter marshes and swamps. The Outer Banks barrier islands form a sand dam between the estuaries and the Atlantic Ocean.
While this system has been in place since the ocean’s formation 180 million years ago, it is marked by continual fluctuation as sea level and land elevation change over time.
Prior to the mid-20th century, the barrier islands—part of a coastal zone that includes 10,000 miles of estuarine shorelines, 3,500 square miles of estuarine waters, four major river-draining basins, and the Atlantic Ocean—were sparsely inhabited. Most of the buildings housed small businesses or were simple, no-fuss beach shacks. After World War II, the tourism industry and the population exploded, leading to a boom in urban infrastructure.
“In 2009, tourism in the North Carolina coastal counties brought in about 2.5 billion dollars, 85 percent of which was associated with the barrier islands,” according to The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast.
All told, the NC LOW coastal system is roughly the size of Vermont and home to approximately 475,000 people. As Riggs puts it: “If you don’t like wet feet, you shouldn’t be out there. It’s all about water and change.”