Supported By:
Our 2007-2008 UNC Research Competitiveness Project

Researchers at East Carolina University (ECU) and other North Carolina universities were funded by a  University of North Carolina Research Competitiveness Grant to conduct a diversity of research on coastal hazards in the state.  Much of the text below is taken from the funded proposal. Please learn about the project and project results by reading here:

The Project

An Interdisciplinary, Multi-Institutional Cooperative Research and Outreach Program to Underpin North Carolina´s Future Economic Competitiveness
In Response to the University of North Carolina Research Competitiveness Fund Request for Proposals, October 2007
Lead PIs: Stephen J. Culver and Stanley R. Riggs, Department of Geological Sciences, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858
Email: Tel. 252 328 6360
Oregon Inlet and the crucial economic artery, Highway 12 and Bonner Bridge
(courtesy of W. Birkemeier, US Army Corps of Engineers, FRF, Duck)


We live in one of the most disaster-prone states in the nation. We cannot stop natural disasters from occurring but, as post-Katrina events have demonstrated, we must develop wisely to minimize risks and have in place a realistic post-disaster recovery plan. Such a plan must be informed by an understanding of the both the natural and socio-economic environments and their likely response to disastrous storms or an increased rate of sea-level rise. Plans for future economic growth must consider the preservation of our current economic infrastructure. The primary objective of this proposal is to examine the vulnerability of the natural resources and human infrastructure of coastal North Carolina to severe storms and sea-level rise and to determine the economic implications.

This research and outreach will provide the critical marriage of natural and social sciences and will communicate insights to the public, elected officials and coastal managers.

The proposed research involves 17 researchers from nine disciplines and five UNC universities/institutions. The project is classifiable in the Marine Sciences category of the RFP (it clearly also has Environmental Science components). It complements and expands upon existing research, and it capitalizes on previous large research program successes funded by sources outside the UNC system. The deliverables of this project will be useful for the private sector, including coastal insurance entities and real estate investment and development groups as well as county and state managers. But the relevance of this work is more profound as it contributes to the sustainable economic development of all coastal industries (tourism, recreation, fisheries, agriculture, silviculture, military bases, etc.).


This proposal involves a team of 17 scientists and many students from five North Carolina universities/institutes. East Carolina University (ECU), UNC-Coastal Studies Institute (CSI), Western Carolina University (WCU), University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), and Appalachian State University (ASU) are represented by this team, which includes diverse academic disciplines: economics, recreation and leisure studies, coastal resources management, natural hazards, public policy, geology, biology, geography, and oceanography. Co-Principal Investigators are: Tom Allen (ECU Geography), Dorothea Ames (ECU Geological Sciences), Okmyung Bin (ECU, Economics), D. Reide Corbett (ECU, Geological Sciences and ICSP), Tom Crawford (ECU Geography), Chris Dumas (UNCW, Economics and Finance), Mohammad Jahan-Parvar (ECU, Economics), Craig Landry (ECU Economics), David Mallinson (ECU Geological Sciences), Michael O’Driscoll (ECU Geological Sciences), Hans Vogelsong (ECU Recreation and Leisure Studies), J.P. Walsh (ECU Geological Sciences and ICSP), Nancy White (CSI, Director), John Whitehead (ASU, Economics) , Robert Young (WCU, Director, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines).

The two principal investigators are experienced in collaborating within and in leading large team projects. The head of coastal geology research for the US Geological Survey has called the 2000-2008 North Carolina Coastal Geology Cooperative (NCCGC), funded by the USGS and co-led by the two PIs of this proposal, the most successful USGS-state cooperative program in the nation. The NCCGC team has, amongst other examples of translational research, advised the NCDOT concerning reengineering of Hwy 12 and replacement of Bonner Bridge, and contributed to the deliberations of the NC Coastal Resources Commission, which is developing management recommendations for every inlet along North Carolina’s coast.

This proposal builds upon many previous studies including the NCCGC, led by ECU, the NCGS and the USGS (to date, 24 Masters theses, 1 PhD dissertation, 51 journal articles/reports/DVDs, 154 conference papers), and the recent (2007) 91-page report by Bin, Dumas, Poulter and Whitehead, for the Bipartisan Policy Center, Inc., entitled, "Measuring the Impacts of Climate Change on North Carolina Coastal Resources".


The coast of North Carolina is a vital economic engine for our state. Coastal property, tourism-related businesses and natural resources provide billions of dollars of revenue for North Carolinians and their state and county governments. Recent natural disasters (e.g., Hurricane Floyd floods and Hurricane Isabel barrier island breaching) have highlighted the great vulnerability of our communities to coastal hazards. We must learn from recent events in North Carolina and beyond by identifying the coastal resources at greatest risk before a disastrous event so that we can plan how human distress can be minimized and economic impacts can be mitigated. Specifically, the objectives of this proposal are to examine the vulnerability of the geological, ecological and human infrastructure of the Outer and Inner Banks to severe storms (i.e., hurricanes and nor’easters) and sea-level rise, to determine the economic implications, and to communicate findings.

The North Carolina coast has a long history of significant impacts from hurricanes and nor’easters. The North Carolina Division of Emergency Management provides a summary of natural hazard risks (High, Moderate, or Low) by county. The proportion of the counties covered by the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA), that were assigned a "High" risk category for hurricanes, nor’easters, tornados, and floods were 80%, 80%, 35% and 85% respectively. Since 1993, North Carolina has experienced a record number of direct impacts from minor hurricanes and tropical storms, the socio-economic effects of which are still being experienced. Despite these events, and the catastrophic events in other coastal communities, our coastal zone continues its rapid development. Small vacation cottages have given way to multi-story, multi-million dollar investment properties. Property values on the state’s barrier island system are staggering. Even a relatively minor storm event can now cause hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage to barrier island property. Eastern North Carolina contains three U.S. Marine Corps bases that are in the midst of expanding and which play an important role in the local and state economies. Sea-level rise and storm-related damages to these bases could affect national security. Along with residential development, and a burgeoning tourism industry that contributes significantly to the state’s economy, has come commercial, health, safety and other infrastructure (e.g., malls, hospitals, and water, sewer, power, and road systems). Fisheries, agriculture, and silviculture are also mainstays of the coastal economy. Problems with water quality have affected fisheries and saltwater encroachment threatens agriculture and groundwater supplies and may restrict population growth on the mainland.

Recent findings by Co-PIs of this proposal indicate several dramatic economic consequences of environmental change to North Carolina in the near future:

  • The value of property at risk to sea-level rise in just four coastal counties (Dare, Carteret, New Hanover, and Bertie) over the next 75 yrs is $6.9 billion.
  • The northern counties are more vulnerable than the southern. The property at risk in Dare County ranges from 2% to 12% of the total value depending on sea-level rise scenarios.
  • The lost recreation value to local beach goers to southern North Carolina beaches is projected to be $93 million per year by 2030.
  • recreation benefits for southern NC will total $3.9 billion over the next 75 yrs.
  • Business interruption losses in Dare, Carteret, New Hanover and Bertie counties due to increases in category 3 hurricanes are projected to rise to $34 million per storm by 2030.
  • Increasing storm intensity will seriously impact agriculture. A category 1 hurricane currently causes about $50 million in agricultural damages.

A measure of the perceived importance of the proposed work is that a much larger, five-year proposal (with the same title as this proposal), which emanated from the UNC Marine Sciences Task Force and was submitted to President Bowles in March 2007, was accompanied by letters of support from three UNC-system Chancellors (ECU, WSU and ASU).


The February 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report included the following statements, "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal... It is likely that future... hurricanes will become more intense" and the "Projected sea level rise at the end of the 21st century is up to 0.59m." Clearly, the threat to coastal North Carolina during the next century is considerable. Recent findings by researchers involved in this proposal show that, due to regional subsidence, the projected sea-level rise for our coast is up to 0.8m (2.5ft) above today´s level by 2100, and large portions of coastal counties have an elevation of less than this!

Elements of the proposed program will produce important insight and contributions as stand-alone projects but integration and coordination will provide new and unique opportunities. In the 2003 RAND Report, "Assessing Federal Research and Development for Hazard Loss Reduction," the lack of accurate economic data is identified as a severe constraint to measuring the effectiveness of national hazard loss research and development. This gap is described as the "missing metric," without which cost-effective national hazard mitigation policy is impossible to formulate. This research program helps to fill this crucial gap for coastal North Carolina.

With 50% of the U.S. population residing within 50 miles of a coastline, issues surrounding decision making in the coastal zone apply to a large proportion of the population. Since eastern North Carolina is ethnically and financially diverse, the results of this study have the potential for broad application. A better understanding of the economic implications of storm impacts to coastal areas will lead to better informed and effective policy: policy that improves sustainability and benefits all stakeholders in regional economies along the coast.

Efforts to increase the economic competitiveness of North Carolina in the global marketplace must take advantage of the entire state. An economic strength in the mainly rural and economically depressed low-lying eastern part of North Carolina is industry located in and associated with the coastal zone (e.g., tourism, recreation, fisheries, agriculture, silviculture, military bases). The value of this coastal economy measures in the billions of dollars. Indeed, these industries must be maintained but they can and should be grown sustainably as they are threatened by both natural processes (storms and sea-level rise) and anthropogenic processes (environmental degradation, particularly of water resources). Hurricanes are likely to increase in intensity in the next decades and increasing rates of sea-level rise over the past two centuries have been clearly demonstrated for North Carolina and will continue into the foreseeable future. Land-use changes have increased stormwater runoff and increasing coastal populations have stressed the capacity to treat and dispose of wastewater.

If a hurricane of the scale of Andrew or Katrina were to hit North Carolina (and they have in the past, prior to the extensive coastal development of the last 40 years) then, clearly, the effects to the coast and local and state economies would be catastrophic. We cannot stop natural disasters from occurring but, as post-Katrina events have demonstrated, we should minimize risks and have in place a realistic post-disaster recovery plan. Both of these require public, private, political and managerial communities that are fully informed of the natural and socio-economic environments and their likely response to a disastrous storm or increased rate of sea-level rise. This project will provide a considerable portion of that information and will communicate it to the public, elected officials and coastal managers.

Project Results

The UNC project discussed above covered a diversity of topics and yielded a multitude of results.  Show below is a table with the names of specific PIs including links to webpages or reports with project results.

Walsh, Corbett, Allen and Crawford Created the NCCOHAZ decision portal which you are currently visiting, including a page displaying real-time hazards (made in collaboration from UNC-CH researchers Cleary and Seim).  Also, they have installed a GIS server and begun construction of a NC coastal GIS database.
Riggs, Ames, Culver and others Created several manuscripts on the geologic evolution and dynamics of the Outer Banks; These are now being edited or are in review.
Bin Report: Measuring the Impacts of Sea-Level Rise on Coastal Real Estate in North Carolina 
Coburn and Young Inventory of shoreline engineering projects.  This project created a Google database (.kml) which can be download here.
Vogelsong Report: Estimating Economic Impact from Inlet Formation
Landry and Jahan-Parvar Report: Flood Insurance Coverage in the Coastal Zone
Mallinson Report: Defining the Spatial and Temporal Characteristics of Paleo-Inlet Channels beneath the Outer Banks of North Carolina.Defining the Spatial and Temporal Characteristics of Paleo-Inlet Channels beneath the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Whitehead and Dumas Report: Measuring the Economic Impacts of Sea-Level Rise on Marine Recreational Shore Fishing in North Carolina
O'Driscoll and Allen Report and/or maps to be posted shortly.