Coastal Loss, Climate Grief

The Outer Banks, North Carolina – Cape Hatteras is the small triangular island in the middle of the photo

Over 30 years ago, a ribbon of sand caught me up, and over many encounters that ribbon has wound its away around my heart. The Outer Banks in North Carolina are a narrow strip of stranded seashore on the frontline of the continental-oceanic front. Its isolation fosters a unique natural ecosystem and, for me, a stronger family. Our love affair has been long and fruitful, but on my most recent trip I fully faced the facts of the disease which, while for now mostly unobservable, will do her in.

Nature in all her perfection and complexity consumes me when I am at “the beach.” The flawless patterns of a seashell, the crazy organic sprawl of live oak trunks, the wild beauty of a wintering tundra swan, the stinking muck of a fecund wetland, and so much more come to mind when I think of the Outer Banks. And the sea–so elemental that children and their parents cannot resist the compulsion of our DNA to swim–is omnipresent in smell, sound, and usually sight.

I was born and raised, and raised my own, in the region around the salt-free Great Lakes. Flowing rivers and towering trees there give nature a cool and dark character. In coastal Carolina, the rivers are flooded plains and the pines are twisted and scrappy; the chickadees have a different song, the blooms are brighter, and the reptiles more prolific. Nature here is lively, sun-fed and heat-tolerant.

Being outside becomes easier when at the Outer Banks: a walk and a swim in the morning, a move to the porch for the breeze, sand underfoot and in-suit for most of the day, a bike ride through the surprising coastal forest. To the east is the ocean, to the west the sound, that shallow body of water between the Outer Banks and the coast. You can take in both a sunrise and sunset over water on the same day.

Time slows down on the shore. We started coming here before cell phones and the internet, and we like it that way. Books, birds, and beach talk are still my preferred pastimes. Up and down the coast there are wildlife sanctuaries, and an old wood cottage amongst the live oaks and wax myrtle is a family refuge as well.

Climate Change threatens this special spot. Threatens is not the right word, because the effects are already apparent, though not fully recognized. Rather, the Outer Banks have a terrible disease that has not yet presented but will doom her nonetheless. The doctors have conducted the tests and made the diagnosis, and the patient has gotten the report, but refuses to accept it. The family is not sure what to do, and is reluctant to bring up the topic. What treatments can we try? Will some miracle save her? Can we prolong her time, and protect her quality of life?

Climate grief is a relatively new phrase that accompanies the terms climate change, climate action, climate crisis, and the other hashtagged attempts to spur a wider response. The American Psychological Association investigated what they called “ecoanxiety” and said this: “Qualitative research provides evidence that some people are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.”

Powerlessness confronts me at least once every time I visit the beach. In nature, there are frequent reminders of our relative insignificance, but the ocean always overwhelms me. While one cannot tell the difference between a photo of a Great Lakes sunrise from one over the Atlantic Ocean, there is no ignoring the power of the ocean when one enters the surf. Even when calm, the inexorable pull of the tide earns my respect. And when swimming in the waves, there is always some moment when my whole body becomes captured and transported without my control. In the hold of nature, we are powerless.

The powerful ocean, source of life and sculptor of the Outer Banks, will be the relentless killer of the place I love. The barrier islands of Carolina were formed when the young and tall Appalachians eroded into a much lower sea. The sandbars moved off-shore, and when sea levels rose again the islands moved in. They have been fairly stable for the last 2000 years, but rising sea levels have begun to move them westward again. Hurricanes and nor’easters blow open channels and carry sand into the sounds between the mainland and the Outer Banks. The expanding wetlands there are nurseries for fish and other aquatic life.

NASA photo of the Outer Banks just south of the Virginia-North Carolina border, showing Albermarle and Currituck Sound, the location of the Audubon Sanctuary at Pine Island (where there was an open passage to the sea in the 19th century), and the wetlands just south of Duck created by washover

Humans have tried to take a stand against the impacts of climate change, refilling new channels to keep roads passable, pumping sand onto beaches, and placing large sandbags and other defenses on the shore. It’s a losing battle. In some places, over a half-mile of beach width has disappeared and houses and hotels have been lost to the sea. Twenty years ago, in an expensive recognition of coastal impermanence, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was moved back 2,900 feet from the shore to protect it from the encroaching waves. Still, floodwaters are surrounding it at times, a situation that will worsen with higher sea levels.

Controversy accompanies every new forecast about sea level rise and its impact on the Outer Banks, but it’s clear that unless climate change is stopped, the sea will take on more water and claim more of the coast. In the last 60 years, the sea is up six inches, the next six inches will come in less than 20 years, according to one group of scientists.

In my lifetime, the Outer Banks will persist and I look forward to future visits here, but eventually the ocean will win and move the islands westward. The already deeper ocean will keep its pressure on. When I think about further climate change, higher seas and stronger storms, I despair for my treasured ribbon of sand. It’s impossible to exactly mark when, and how, the impacts of climate change will be felt, but we know they are inevitable.

For years, residents of the Outer Banks have lived with the uncertainty of hurricanes and the destruction they may wreak. There’s a combination of acquiescence, bravado, and exceptionalism among those who reside on, or visit frequently, the Outer Banks. “Living on a Sandbar” is the popular motto found on beer cozies and t-shirts.

Climate change may just be one more roll of the dice for the Outer Banks, but the bets are bigger and coming more often. Already some property-owners on the Outer Banks have problems selling real estate, though the vacation rental market provides compensation. Life is a party when on the beach.

For others, climate change creates anxiety. As I spend more time on the Outer Banks, it’s clear that the impacts will be selective with some areas hit before others. I worry about the drowning of wetlands in places like the Audubon Preserve at Pine Island, and damage to mature forests such as The Nature Conservancy’s Nags Heads Wood Preserve. Historical sites like the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk are also at risk.

Ding an Sich is the name my wife’s parents gave to a small cottage they built on a sandy lot they bought on the Outer Banks in the 1960s. The beach house has an open great room for gathering and a crow’s nest office that allows for a view of the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the road. My father-in-law, a theologian, borrowed a phrase from Kant, “a thing unto itself” for its name. Self-contained, close to the sea, amidst nature and apart from the world, it serves as a place for the building of relationships and the recharging of souls.

Like the aging bodies of its current owners, the beach house is in need of some attention. Every trip requires some repair and a project or two, but as the home approaches 50 it remains both unchanged and functional. But my family has stopped making significant investments in it, because the next big hurricane may do it in. Last year, flooding from hurricane-induced rains isolated the structure on its stilts for the first time ever.

Grief–the response to loss–commands a decision from you. There are the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) and they seem to apply to the varied responses to climate change one observes in friends, scientists, and politicians. The analysis can be useful, but the potential for loss, when imminent, does not come in a series of steps. Rather, one confronts a basic choice between despair or action.

In 2018, I faced the diagnosis of a brain tumor and the scary reality of brain surgery. The outcome was successful, but from before my recovery I recall a distinct vision of two paths: one bleak, dark, and despairing; the other, while still scary, was better lit and offered hope. I am glad I chose to walk down the positive path; it led me back to nature (if you want to learn more about my journey click here).

This summer was my first time back to the North Carolina coast after my surgery, and I looked anew at the waves and the sand they moved. The impermanence of the Outer Banks was suddenly clearer. Seeing the weathered wood of the beach house was like looking at the gray hair of an old friend (or was it a look in the mirror?). It was comforting to know we were both aging and had some wisdom to share, but it also portends the inevitable. Like always, the beach visit recharged me, but in addition to happiness, a sadness was part of this vacation.

We are one with nature, is a phrase that appeals to me and I use it when highlighting the benefits we get from the natural world like clean water. But nature is also a spiritual resource: I grew up being awed by northern lights filling the sky over Canadian lakes and felt my existence to be small and fleeting. The ocean has inspired the same reaction in my middle age.

Standing on precambrian sandstone on the shore of Lake Superior grounds me in the permanence of the earth, but the Outer Banks remind me of nature’s dynamism. I used to think of ever-changing nature in terms of the seasons, the arrival of wildflowers in the north woods, the movement of tundra swans in the sky above Michigan in the fall, or dead plants recycled in a compost pile. Now the air and sea around us, and the sandy shore I stand on, is changing–and not for the better.

Humans and nature are on very different time scales, but we are forcing nature into a shorter time frame. While scientific inquiry revealed the history of the Outer Banks’ creation to me, I can now see them changing year-to-year. I feel their future with heartbreak.

How to act in the face of climate change? And how to cope with climate grief? For me the sadness is profound, but I also love the Outer Banks, Ding an Sich, and all this place represents in the life of my family. Nature will survive, we will not. Nonetheless, I don’t despair. Rather, my love has become fiercer, and my commitment to care stronger.

I am at the bedside of a loved one in hospice. We reminisce about the good times, and thankfully she is still healthy enough for a paddle in the sound. Our faith has us promising each other we will meet again. I don’t plan to be one of those people who, at a funeral, lament all the praise and gratitude left unsaid. I am going to talk about the places I love, name the climate disease that threatens our time together, and fight like hell to eke out a few more good days. In the end, we will still be together.

Want to Take Action? The Nature Conservancy has a plan to put nature to work to fight climate change in North Carolina and around the globe; learn more about natural climate solutions. The North Carolina Coastal Federation works to protect and restore coastal water quality and habitats throughout the North Carolina coast by collaborating with and engaging people from all walks of life who are committed to preserving the coast for current and future generations. Both organizations are worthy of your support.

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