Magazine article Oceanus

A Tale of Two Lighthouses

Magazine article Oceanus

A Tale of Two Lighthouses

Article excerpt

America stands at a great crossroads with regard to shoreline policy. Many buildings on the East Coast beachfront are threatened by the Atlantic Ocean, or soon will be if current erosion rates continue. How we, as a society, should respond in the face of this impending doom is a matter of great controversy. The story of two lighthouses, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina and Morris Island Lighthouse in South Carolina, illustrates some of the complexities involved.

At 63 meters high, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the US, and one of the most famous. The present Cape Hatteras Lighthouse replaced a shorter, dimmer, light built in 1803. Since 1870 it has warned mariners of the treacherous waters of Diamond Shoals that have earned North Carolina's Outer Banks the nickname "Graveyard of the Atlantic." Readily accessible by car, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is today one of the East Coast's major tourist attractions. Morris Island Lighthouse, also known as Charleston Lighthouse, was first lit in 1876 and is about 50 meters high. Perhaps because Morris Island has always been inaccessible by car, it never became the tourist attraction that Cape Hatteras Lighthouse did, but it is a well-known local landmark for the important port city of Charleston. The present Morris Island Light replaced a pre-Revolutionary War light that was destroyed during the Civil War (by some accounts during the battle for Garrison Wagner that was made famous in the movie Glory).

How are the Cape Hatteras and Morris Island lights linked with respect to coastal policy? Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is in imminent danger of being destroyed by storm waves. It was originally built some 500 meters from the shore, but erosion has moved the shoreline to within 20 meters of the light. Morris Island Light has also been the victim of a rapidly retreating shoreline. To find it today, don't look on land or even near the shore, because it's in the water, some 500 meters offshore!

The Controversy

Controversy over whether or not to try to save Cape Hatteras Light, and if so, how, has raged since the 1930s. The arguments have strengthened since 1980, and are centered around whether to:

* armor the shoreline in an attempt to protect the lighthouse in place,

* relocate the lighthouse landward,

* replenish the beach, or

* do nothing, and let the lighthouse collapse when its time comes.

All sides have been steadfast, with impassioned arguments touting their different viewpoints. Many times it seemed likely the approaching shoreline would destroy Cape Hatteras Lighthouse before a decision could be reached about saving it! High erosion rates, high wave energy, and the lighthouse's vulnerability to hurricanes and other winter storms (such as nor'easters) meant time was of the essence.

In the 1930s shoreline migration brought the sea to within 30 meters of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and in 1936 the light was abandoned. By 1950 the shoreline had stabilized naturally. At this point, ownership was transferred from the US Coast Guard to the National Park Service, and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was reactivated. In the 1960s and 1970s three groins were built, subsequently destroyed by a storm, and rebuilt. Nylon sandbags were emplaced in front of the lighthouse, and three other unsuccessful beach replenishment projects were also undertaken.

In 1980, a March storm washed away the remaining ruins of the original lighthouse and threatened the present Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Quick thinking by the resourceful Park Service saved the light: They tore up the parking lot and placed the rubble in front of the light to protect it from the storm. In 1981, the National Park Service asked the US Army Corps of Engineers for their evaluation. In 1985, the National Park Service decided that protecting the lighthouse in place with a massive seawall was the best way to save it. Under pressure from local opponents of shoreline armoring, however, they decided to reconsider the options, and in 1987 they asked the National Research Council for help. …

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