Building a Resilient Beaufort: Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change on a Historic Coastal Town

by Holden Buchanan

In 2018, one of my best friends Ashley moved from her life-long home in northern Durham to Beaufort, North Carolina, a beautiful coastal town with gorgeous views, a walkable historic district and a peaceful, slow pace of life. I visited on numerous occasions, enjoying the fresh seafood, taking trips to sea on her family boat and falling in love with the old-world, southern charm of North Carolina’s fourth oldest town.[1]  Once college started and my academic and extracurricular obligations made trips to Beaufort difficult, I was not able to return to the town, until my girlfriend spent the spring 2023 semester at the Duke University Marine Laboratory, a small research facility and campus on Piver’s Island, just a few miles from the town. She took marine biology classes and conducted research, quantifying chlorophyll biomass variations at different depths in the water column. When I took a weekend visit, I was fortunate enough to learn about other research being conducted by bright Duke students and staff at the lab, including the measurement of ocean warming and acidification through year-round water samples, the evaluation of microplastic presence in oysters at their aquafarm and analysis on the impact of the decreasing fish population on local fishing economies. These discouraging findings made me curious – How are these climate trends impacting North Carolinian coastal residents? How are residents and politicians addressing these concerns?

To demonstrate the overarching effects of climate change on the North Carolina coast, let’s take a look at how these effects are being played out in real time in Beaufort. Beaufort has faced worsening coastal and climate hazards[2], like sea level rise, flooding and hurricanes, threatening the homes, businesses and natural infrastructure of the “frontline community” and jeopardizing the well-being and prosperity of residents. Severe flooding, especially on the historic Front Street[3], a bustling hub for local businesses where the roads are becoming increasingly impassable, is hurting the local economy. Warmer waters and ocean acidification are disrupting marine ecosystems, leading to declining fish populations and shifting habitats for commercially caught fish species. The summer flounder, a species integral to the Beaufort’s trawling industry, is moving north[4], impacting the Beaufort economy and reducing the local food supply. Commercial fishermen in Beaufort are also facing decreasing shrimp and blue crab populations.[5]

The state legislature, controlled by the GOP since 2011[6], has done an insufficient job of addressing the climate concerns of Beaufort and other NC coastal towns. The Farm Act of 2023 contained a provision that would limit the definition of wetlands in North Carolina to the federal definition recently altered by Sackett v. EPA[7], unprotecting an egregious 2.5 million acres of isolated wetlands.[8] House Bill 819, passed in 2012, essentially prohibits state agencies from using accelerated sea level rise projections in their coastal planning.[9] There have been several legislative efforts in North Carolina that have rolled back environmental regulations, including ones surrounding air quality and pollution control (Ex. House Bill 600[10]). Finally, the North Carolina General Assembly has consistently passed legislation permitting the state government to preempt local ordinances[11] (Ex. House Bill 74[12]), minimizing local governments’ abilities to enact their own environmental protections that exceed state standards. 

In light of this inadequate climate-conscious action at the state level, Beaufort and 19 other coastal counties have done what they can to fight locally, embarking on strategic initiatives through the North Carolina Resilient Coastal Communities Program (RCCP)[13], a structured planning process under the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA)[14]that aids communities in developing effective, ready-to-implement resilience projects. 

With consideration of our class readings, data on climate change induced coastal problems and the RCCP initiatives, I have 4 policy focuses that NC coastal local governments must prioritize to minimize the burden of climate change on their communities – 

  1. Enhanced Infrastructure: Chapter 11 of Environmental Policy[15] emphasized the importance of infrastructure, illustrated by coastal cities Seattle and San Francisco’s prioritization of physical infrastructure in their local resilience initiatives. Coastal communities should upgrade their infrastructure to withstand extreme weather events, reinforcing flood defenses and improving drainage systems along critical areas.
  2. Ecological Conservation Initiatives: Protecting and restoring marine habitats is crucial, especially as many coastal towns rely on fishing and trawling. The shellfish industry alone provides over $27 million in economic impact and 532 jobs in the state.[16] Coastal towns can implement measures, such as artificial reefs[17] or seagrass plantations[18], to support marine biodiversity, helping to sustain the fishing industry and mitigating the impacts of acidification and warming oceans.
  3. Education: Educational programs that focus on the impacts of climate change and the importance of resilience can empower residents to participate actively in local decision-making processes. Duke has funded a “Conservation with communities in rural, coastal North Carolina” Duke Engage program[19] for this summer, where students can assist organizations in rural, coastal NC with educational and conservation missions that deal with the socio-economic realities of climate change on the coast.
  4. Policy Advocacy at the Local, State and Federal Levels: Coastal residents must exercise their voting power to elect politicians that will promote climate action – protecting vital climate-mitigating ecological systems, delegating resources to disaster relief and promoting the state executive branch’s ability to fight pollution. Residents and local organizations should also actively seek state and federal support for resilience projects and lobby for funding to support large-scale infrastructure projects and policies that address broader climate change impacts.

The challenges posed by climate change in NC coastal communities are significant but not insurmountable. By implementing these recommendations with a local focus and strategic planning, coastal communities can transform these challenges into opportunities for sustainability and growth and ensure that the coast not only survives but thrives.

[1] Eric Medlin, “Beaufort’s Quiet but Rich History Has Become Its Big Draw”, Coastal Review (July 3 2023)

[2] “Resilient Beaufort.”, Beaufort Government

[3] Cassie Freund, “Flooding Study Reveals Factors NOAA Forecasts Don’t Include”, Coastal Review

[4] Rossie Izlar, Commercial Fishers: State of Change, PBS North Carolina (April 5 2023)

[5] Brad Rich, “County Sees Significant Drop in Commercial Fishing during Last 2 Decades”, Carolina Coast Online (September 11 2022)

[6] “Party Control of North Carolina State Government”, Ballotpedia

[7] Walker Livingston, “Numerous N.C. Wetlands Lose Protections under Farm Act and Scotus Case” The Daily Tar Heel (September 5 2023)

[8] Ibid

[9] Nicole Papsco, “North Carolina Denies and Defies Science in House Bill 819”, Columbia Undergraduate Law Review (March 21 2016)

[10] “House Bill 600 / SL 2023-137”, North Carolina General Assembly

[11] Richard Whisnant, “State versus Local Government Power to Regulate Environmental Problems in NC”, Environmental Law in Context (April 6 2023)

[12] Philip Berger, Thom Tillis, Pat McCrory, “HOUSE BILL 74”, North Carolina General Assembly

[13] “2024-2025 Phase 3 & 4 Request for Applications”, NC Department of Environmental Quality

[14] “Article 7 — Coastal Area Management”, North Carolina General Assembly

[15] Norman J. Vig, Michael E. Kraft, Barry G. Rabe, “Sustainability and Resilience in Cities: What Cities Are Doing”, Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century, SAGE Publications 

[16] Eric Edwards, The Economic Impact of North Carolina’s Shellfish Mariculture Industry, NC State Extension Publications (May 17 2021)

[17] Rick Stafford, Zach Boakes, “Artificial Coral Reefs Showing Early Signs They Can Mimic Real Reefs Killed by Climate Change – New Research”, The Conversation (October 19 2023)

[18] “Planting Hope – How Seagrass Can Tackle Climate Change”, World Wildlife Fund for Nature UK (August 21 2023)

[19] Liz DeMattia, “Conservation with Communities in Rural, Coastal North Carolina”, Duke Engage (December 15 2023)

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