Category Archives: Geography

North Carolina’s valuable pile of sand

This land isn’t permanent, it moves. This whole pile of sand moves with every storm with sea level rise, and it’ll continue to move for hundreds of years. And we’ve tried to engineer it like it’s Raleigh, like it’s a rock, but it’s not. It’s sand.” — Stanley Riggs, former professor of marine and coastal geography. — Courier-Tribune, Sept. 15, 2018

The pile of sand Riggs is talking about is the Outer Banks, the 200 mile string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. His concern is the continuing development on that long sand bank, and the general lack of interest in restricting it.

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Image from U.S. National Parks Maps

Given that the Outer Banks consist of shifting sands, sit barely above sea level, and are located in a part of the world subject to violent ocean storms, why is there continuing development?

The developers know that building houses and roads on sand is asking for trouble. The difficulties associated with the stability of buildings have been researched for well over 2000 years. Matthew, a great authority on the subject, said: ”And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and Great was the fall of it.“ — The guy knew what he was talking about.

Image of fallen house on Hatteras Island, North Carolina

fallen house, Hatteras Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image: Steve Early/ Virginia Post

North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission studied the situation in 2010 and wrote a report predicting a 39 inch rise in sea level by the year 2100, enough to flood coastal towns and wash away the existing built environment on the Outer Banks. Advocates for economic development in twenty of the State’s coastal counties formed the NC-20 group to lobby against the report which, they said, was based on bad science. It would, they argued, scare away business and tourists. The Legislature agreed, passed a bill prohibiting scary predictions, and ordered the commission to write something acceptable to the economic development people. The result was a 2015 report predicting a sea level rise of 6 – 8 inches by the year 2045. What a relief.

As well as the thousands of year-round residents and summer-cottage owners, the Outer Banks attract several million tourists each year. It’s a big enterprise and an important tax generator. Of course government wants to support it, and they’ll continue to do so until the environmental situation becomes untenable. In the mean time, the real estate developers, estate, agents, house builders, private insurers, road contractors, shop owners, and rental accommodation suppliers, will all get paid. And the tourists will continue to enjoy fun in the sun.

What about the property owners? Well, in real estate, timing is everything. They’ll just have to watch the market and judge when to sell — that’s if they even care; purchasing beach-front property is not a poor man’s game. And if a hurricane happens to blow their stuff away, there’s always FEMA and the Feds (the American taxpayer) to help them rebuild their houses, on taller stilts if necessary.

Beach houses on Hatteras Island, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene

Beach houses on Hatteras Island, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene. Image: Telegraph/AP

If sea level rises faster and higher than the 6 – 8 inches currently mandated by North Carolina’s law makers, who will bare the cost? Probably the people living in towns along the State’s low lying mainland coast. The houses they live in are not summer homes or holiday rentals — it’s all they’ve got.

Map of North Carolina showing physical regions

North Carolina Physical Regions. Map image from NCPedia

 

Norfolk VA – Retreat, Dig-In, or Both?

The Coastal Plain — the land bordering the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Cape Cod — was once sea bottom. It has low topographic relief and extensive areas of wet land and drowned valleys such as the Chesapeake, the Delaware, and Long Island Sound. From the air the plain looks as flat as a pancake. The part of the plain that extends eastward into the Atlantic, forms the continental shelf. Norfolk, Virginia, is located on the eastern edge of the plain, on land the sea now wants to reclaim as its own.

Water view of Norfolk VA

Norfolk VA viewed from across the Elizabeth River. Wiki Commons image

It’s a pleasantly warm November day in downtown Norfolk. The sun is shining on the Elizabeth River and there’s nothing to suggest to the casual visitor that the city is under threat from an encroaching ocean. But the Inhabitants of the city are well aware of the threat and are constantly reminded of it.

For example, here’s part of a memorandum from the administrators of the Eastern Virginia Medical School to its students, faculty, and staff, concerning campus safety:

[The school] is located in a low lying coastal area; Norfolk’s elevation and its proximity to several rivers make it susceptible to flooding. Nearly every year, and sometimes several times throughout the year during times of heavy rain, hurricanes or nor’easter storms, the EVMS Community is threatened with the potential of precipitation, tidal and/or wind-driven flooding and/or low-land flooding.

The memo goes on to offer safety tips: If advised to evacuate your home, do so immediately; If there is any possibility of a flash flood, move to higher ground; If possible, move essential items to an upper floor; Turn off utilities at the main switches or valves; Do not walk through moving water. As little as 6 inches of moving water can make you fall; Do not drive into flooded areas. If floodwaters rise around your car, abandon the car and move to higher ground if you can do so safely.

The EVMS campus is located a mile or so north-west of Norfolk’s downtown core, in the district called Ghent. But the threat of flooding is not restricted to any one area, it is a constant concern throughout the city. 

Norfolk VA storm surge map

Norfolk VA storm surge map. Virginia Dept. of Emergency Management

What the map tells us is that, under present sea level conditions, the surge from a category three hurricane would put most of the city under several feet of sea water. However, because the level of the sea is continuing to rise, the potential for catastrophic flooding will increase with time.

The grey area on the map at the north end of the city marks the location of Navel Station Norfolk, the nations largest navel base. The base is particularly vulnerable to storm surge. When a serious storm approaches, the fleet wisely heads out to sea.

Navel Base Norfolk from the air

Navel Base Norfolk. Wiki Commons image

So what can be done to protect the city?

The US Corps of Engineers – Norfolk District, has produced a 438-page report titled ‘Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study’ in which it proposes building — at a cost of $1.57 billion — a series of storm surge barriers and sea walls. The scheme is designed to protect the city from a 50-year storm, assuming a rise in sea level of 1.5 feet. However, since no one knows what level the sea will actually rise to, or how strong future storms will actually be, and considering the high cost of the plan, it’s unlikely the city will move on the recommendations any time soon.

The May 21, 2018 issue of Inside Climate News, quotes George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director:

“I truly believe that technology will begin to address some of our climate issues and some of our sea level rise issues, . . . There are obviously some issues, but in theory, can we live with water? Can we make it so the water comes, the water goes, and we just keep on keepin’ on?”

In the same issue, the author, Nicholas Kusnetz, writes:

“Norfolk officials say they don’t know how exactly their city will cope in the long term if seas rise quickly. They voice an understandable, but ultimately troubling faith that someone, somehow, will figure out a solution. Homewood acknowledges that, on some level, it won’t be enough.”

The Geographic Center of the 48 States – why moving it could help

One hundred years ago, someone employed by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey cut the shape of the contiguous 48 States out of a cardboard sheet and determined its center of gravity by balancing it on a point. The balance point on that cardboard map was said to represent the geographic center of the country.

Map of USA (lower 48 States) showing location of geographic center

Lower 48 States with star marking geographic center

Humans are attracted to centers no matter how they are determined. People flock to city centers, cultural centers, shopping centers, garden centers, sometimes even to detention centers. No one speaks of ‘places’ of excellence. In physics, the center of attraction is the point to which bodies tend by gravity. We, on planning a trip across the Great Plains, pick the route that passes through the center of the land.

From St. Joseph, Missouri, we head west on U.S. Route 36, cross the Missouri River, and enter Kansas. It’s early morning so the rising September sun is directly behind us. The expressway narrows to a two-lane highway and soon the country opens up. We see fewer trees and broader vistas. Before us lie the Great Plains, a vast sweep of land stretching east from the Rocky Mountains and from the Rio Grand in Texas to Alberta and Saskatchewan in the north, half a million square miles of relatively flat land, once the home of prairie grasses and bison, now largely given over to crops and cattle.

Some say there’s nothing to see on the plains except endless fields of wheat. In her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather says:

“. . . there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under ones feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud.”

Lebanon, Kansas, is a small agricultural community situated a few miles north of Route 36 in an unremarkable area of the plains. The city has suffered from rural flight and shows it: empty lots, closed schools, deadly quiet streets. Its population, once above 800 in the 1920s, is down to a couple of hundred. Its only claim to fame is its proximity to a set of map coordinates that have no cartographical or scientific relevance.

The cardboard cutout method used by the Geodetic Survey in 1918, determined the country’s geographic center to be at 39″50’N 98″35’W. Since that position lies fairly close to Lebanon, the Lebanon Hub Club, anticipating a sizeable tourist flow, arranged in 1940 for a monument to mark the spot. However, due to the spot being on private property, an alternate location on which to plant the monument had to be found. The result of the search was a piece of land two and a half miles northwest of the center of Lebanon, accessible by a turn-off from Route 281.

Map of City of Lebanon, Kansas, showing location of geographic center. Man by Kansas Dept. of Transportation (KDOT)

City of Lebanon, Kansas in relation to geographic center (upper left). KDOT map.

There’s a mystery here. Why wasn’t the monument planted in the center of Lebanon instead of out in the middle of nowhere? After all, the cardboard cutout method used to determine the center of the country was only accurate to within ten miles at best. To put it another way, any point within a ten-mile radius of the calculated coordinates, including any point within the city of Lebanon, could have been chosen to represent the geographic center.

While the chosen site is pleasant and well maintained (the tiny chapel is a nice touch),  it has never attracted more than a trickle of visitors. A motel built to accommodate the anticipated flood of tourists closed down long ago. A monument within the city would not only give tourists a reason to visit the town, it would also enable Lebanon to advertise itself as the geographic center of the country, not just a place that happens to be near such a center. There seems to be no shortage of potential sites on which to plant a center monument within city boundaries. There are empty lots in the very center of the town. The land fronting the city’s water tower on Main Street might suit nicely.

Who would object to such a move? Certainly not the U.S. Geodetic Survey. That department is no longer interested in geographic centers. Oscar S. Adams, Senior Mathematician at the department, in his article titled Geographic Centers, says this:

“As a matter of fact, the conclusion is forced upon us that there is no such thing as the geographical center of any state, country or continent. The point determined will depend entirely upon the definition given by the one making the computation.”

After inspecting the existing center monument and then returning to Lebanon to walk about the streets, we are hungry and thirsty but find no place to eat. We head back to Route 36 and continue our journey westward. A twenty minute drive takes us to a restaurant called Paul’s Cafe and Dining Room in the city of Smith Center.

Kansas Dept. of transportation (KDOT) of Smith County Kansas showing location of City of Lebanon

Smith County, Kansas. Image from KDOT.