Coastal Resiliency & Sea Level Rise Planning

Climate Change Impacts

The impacts of a changing climate, which includes sea level rise, present potentially enormous future challenges to municipalities across the world, especially those with a close connection to the ocean like Nags Head. The Town of Nags Head wants to improve its resilience to preserve the core values and quality of life despite current and future hazards.

Resilience Effects

A resilient Nags Head means our community will be better able to withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from disruptions due to hazards without long-term damage to our economy or environment. It means the town will ideally require less government and/or private funding to recover, rebuild, and redevelop after a hazard occurs. Sustaining natural systems improves resilience by providing ecosystem services that directly or indirectly support our community’s survival and quality of life. 

As stressors like accelerating sea level rise alter the damage we see from future hazards, it may not be enough to repeat actions the town has used in the past to recover. Therefore, we must identify, study, and implement adaptations – the actions the town, its residents, and business owners need to take to maintain and improve our resilience.

Sea Level Effects

While sea level rise is often thought of as a rise in the ocean height, it has many more impacts on the land than simple inundation (flooding). Sea level is a component of the rates of erosion and can also interact with coastal aquifers, influencing both water table height and salinity. These types of impacts can affect Nags Head long before dry land is permanently flooded. 

Further, soundside marshes will struggle to migrate eastward and keep pace with the rising sea level and, in places where marsh migration is impeded by development, marsh acreage may be lost. Sea level rise also adds to storm surge on both ocean and sound sides, not only changing the rate of erosion but also increasing the potential hazards from overwash. In addition, it is possible that a change in sea level may alter the potential risk of an inlet opening during exceptionally severe storm surges. 

Higher water tables especially coupled with these type events where sea level increases on top of storm surge, could keep ocean outfalls inundated longer and may slow drainage leading to prolonged flooding in low lying areas. Additionally, chronically higher and saltier water tables may impact septic system function. It is not yet known how severe such impairments would need to be to affect surface water quality.

Plans to Guide & Manage

Nags Head has adopted a comprehensive plan, hazard mitigation plan, and land use regulations such as zoning, stormwater, flood, and dune protection to help guide and manage development in this vulnerable environment. As reflected in the vision for the comprehensive plan, the town recognizes that it must be a good place to live before it can be a good place to visit. The town further strives to preserve and protect the Nags Head character, environment, tourism based economy, and sense of place in order to ensure a high quality of life for residents and a memorable family vacation experience for present and future generations. 

This requires that the town seek to balance its economic needs while preserving community character, the natural environment, and maintaining the quality of life through the funding of projects such as beach nourishment, beach access amenities, and multi-use paths. In addition, the town is beginning to plan for sea level rise and climate change, but currently seeks to enhance its understanding of its vulnerabilities and adaptation options as well as the legal and policy barriers to successfully implement planning tools to address the negative impacts of sea level rise.

Comprehensive Planning Process

Nags Head initiated a comprehensive planning process in 2015, known as FOCUS Nags Head, in order to better plan for the future. The Comprehensive Plan was adopted in July 2017. The plan includes policies and actions that will require continued commitment to examine how sea level rise and climate change will impact the town and what the town and its citizens can do to protect vital infrastructure, preserve community character, and maintain a thriving local economy.

North Carolina Sea Grant

Concurrently with the Comprehensive Planning Process, Nags Head contacted North Carolina Sea Grant to conduct an extension project to provide Nags Head with the data, legal and policy analysis it needs to understand its vulnerabilities and more effectively plan for the future. This project is rooted in a public process that involves generating community feedback to increase the publics’ understanding of sea level rise. In a 2015 Board of Commissioners retreat, town staff developed several sea level rise adaptation goals, which this project will help Nags Head begin to:

  1. Determine the factors that make Nags Head vulnerable
  2. Explore adaptation and mitigation practices that may be used to offset negative impacts of sea level rise at a local scale
  3. Obtain scientific information to enable effective decision-making to address threats posed by sea level rise
  4. Identify areas vulnerable to sea level rise
  5. Develop progress toward improving resiliency
  6. Adopt a risk-based approach in planning policies

Legal & Policy Implications of Adaptation Alternatives

In order to assist in meeting these goals, this project also will help the town to understand the legal and policy implications of adaptation alternatives, including issues of environmental justice. Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. 

As part of the initial phase of this extension project, North Carolina Sea Grant utilized the Vulnerability Consequences and Adaptation Planning Scenario (VCAPS) process in the summer of 2015. The VCAPS workshop was open to the public and included three breakout groups resulting in three initial diagrams documenting Nags Head’s vulnerabilities to sea level rise and potential public and private actions the town and residents could take to reduce these vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability, Consequences, Adaption, Planning Scenarios (VCAPS) Report Cover