Environmental change is accelerating. Is Hilton Head Island prepared?

0315-Green-EnvironmentChangeFIRST LIGHT: Every morning, the misty sun ascends in rosy solitude above the eastern horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. Few will see the first rays of sunlight seep across the beach, slow as a sea turtle, and then thread into the low dunes and up the facing tree line and rooflines of Hilton Head Island. Nature awakens with a hush, the grand ritual of daily renewal. There will never be another sunrise, nor the same beach or colored sky, exactly the same as on this day, for the nature of nature is change. This immutable law is a wonder, and yet, the supreme challenge for all. Change, like growing old, is hard to accept and impossible to avoid.

Early tourists walked to this island
Paleo-humans migrated to the Atlantic barrier islands in search of game. Fossil evidence shows this game included mastodon, giant ground sloth, bison and even camel. Fossils and sediment samples prove that during the Ice Age, the sea level receded 70 miles offshore and was hundreds of feet lower than today.
All that changed as the climate warmed; the sea level has risen hundreds of feet due to natural causes and manmade impacts since the Industrial Revolution. I can attest to the effect of this change in sea level, more obvious in the past decades. In 1963, as a teen visiting Hilton Head Island with my family, I walked across sand flats more than 400 yards wide off Port Royal Plantation — the point historically named Hilton Head’s head. You could even see the remnants of pilings from the Civil War-era dock at Fort Walker. That’s all gone been reclaimed by nature. Day by day, the encroaching sea chews into narrowing dunes and bluffs that have long buffered rows of homes, condos, streets and woodlands. Now, the surge of seawater is greater than the mass of sand on the shore and dunes, and erosion is only accelerating. Debate smolders over using public funds for costly beach nourishment using dredged sand to buffer private property from erosion and likely flooding. But there is much more at stake than saving seaside real estate. Sea level rise is a fact of nature, and coastal communities across the globe must adapt.

Resilience Now
The future of this entire community — its economy, infrastructure and natural resources — floats on implementing a bold strategy that faces head on the accelerating impacts of climate change, including flooding, erosion and drought.
Resilience is the ability to withstand and recover from an impact. Without resilience, there can be no sustainability for people, communities, or natural resources. This “rebound trait” is well known to science. For example, the salt marsh cordgrass is more resilient than a pine tree: In severe storms, the grass bends but does not break, while lofty pines shear about 20 feet above ground, crushing cars or roofs below. A resilient Hilton Head Island community would:
• Educate residents and visitors about the increasing risks and responsibilities of living on an island by adapting to more destructive forces of nature.
• Prepare the community’s homeowners, businesses, schools, medical facilities, government and other agencies to plan for events of nature, such as hurricanes, winter storms or wildfire.
• Provide well-advertised and marked evacuation routes for any emergency.
• Use continuity practices to store and protect irreplaceable documents and personal items in an emergency.
• Educate, educate and educate: the more we know, the better prepared we will be.
This is the strength of a great community and a safer island home.

Todd Ballantine is an environmental leader, author-journalist, artist, scientist and public speaker. Contact him at tb@ballantinenvironmental.com.