Jul 282014


July 28, 2014

Chris Egan, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work from East Carolina University, recently was named executive director of the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities (NCCDD).

Egan is a former clinical assistant professor in the School of Social Work at UNC-Chapel Hill and clinical coordinator for the Developmental Disabilities Training Institute within the Jordan Institute for Families in the School of Social Work. His efforts at the NCCDD are directed toward promoting respect and positive outcomes for people with intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities and other co-occurring disabilities.

“As executive director of the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities, I am committed to collaborating with individuals, families, advocacy organizations, the Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services and various DHHS divisions, Managed Care Organizations and other stakeholders to promote choice, responsiveness, innovation and stability within our service system,” Egan said.

Egan is the father of twins, a boy and girl born in 2001. His daughter was born with VATER Association, resulting in numerous medical complications and placing her at significant risk of developmental delay.

Egan and his wife engaged natural and formal supports, including North Carolina’s Early Intervention services.

“As a parent, I have a unique perspective of the powerful experiences associated with having a child born with a disability and have benefited from the assistance of our service system,” Egan said. “… Communities are stronger when all people are included. We will achieve the greatest success in supports for people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities by engaging the full range of community cohorts as vested partners.”

The North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities is a 40-member, governor-appointed body, and 60 percent of its members are people with developmental disabilities or family members of people with disabilities. Its activities are guided by the federal mandate to “promote self-determination, independence, productivity and integration and inclusion in all facets of community life” for people with developmental disabilities and their families.

The council also works to promote a community service delivery system that is personalized to meet the unique needs of each individual with a developmental disability through funding diverse grantees.

Jul 282014


July 28, 2014

Roger Rulifson, a professor at East Carolina University,recently was awarded the status of board member emeritus by the Partnership for the Sounds (PfS) for 20 years of service to the nonprofit organization as a board member and adviser.

The honor was given to Rulifson on July 2 during a Partnership for the Sounds board meeting at the North Carolina Estuarium in Washington, a PfS facility.

Rulifson is a biology professor at ECU and a fisheries scientist in the Institute for Coastal Science and Policy. His expertise led him to play a crucial role in the development and operation of a series of environmental education centers that the partnership manages in the Albemarle-Pamlico sounds region.

Jul 282014


By Hannah Miller

July 27, 2014

Mary Ann Lila, head of N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute, directs P2EP. “We wanted to ask simple questions,” Lila said. “What kind of product does a plant make? How does it make it? And then in the end, what good is that product for human health?”

In the worldwide search to learn more about plants’ role in fighting human disease, an unusual coalition has formed at North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.

It’s made up of academic and industrial scientists from General Mills, UNC Charlotte and N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute – and 40 student interns from 12 colleges and two Cabarrus County high schools.

Called the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EU), it has received nearly $2 million in gifts from academic and industrial sponsors. Duke Energy, a multiyear sponsor, recently announced a $150,000 grant for this year’s program.

Various studies indicate that compounds in certain foods offer protection from diseases, including heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and even waning mental powers.

The scientists and scientists-to-be are approaching their task at the “bare bones” level, said Dr. Mary Ann Lila, who, as head of the Plants for Human Health Institute, directs P2EP.

To trace the chemical pathways involved in compound creation, they’re sequencing the genomes, or mapping the DNA makeup, of blueberries, strawberries, broccoli and oats, something that’s never been done before.

“We wanted to ask simple questions,” Lila said. “What kind of product does a plant make? How does it make it? And then in the end, what good is that product for human health?”

Interns have been a big part of the project since it began last year.

“It gives them a taste of what we do and, hopefully, such an interest that they will pursue this later on,” said N.C. State’s Allan Brown. He’s one of six scientists who mentor both the interns and the seven graduate students who lead them.

Besides, he said, “extra pairs of hands” come in handy when sequencing something as complicated as the 12,000 or so DNA fragments in the blueberry genome.

Some students work in teams that concentrate on one or another of the four foods, others in a bioinformatics section that uses computers to organize the project’s findings.

A tremendous amount of data has been generated in the two-year project, said mentor Rob Reid of UNCC’s Bioinformatics Research Services Division. Once it’s collected, “then you have to start mining that data.”

Much of it has to do with anthocyanins, compounds that give blueberries and strawberries their rich color. They are antioxidants, capable of trapping and neutralizing free radicals – rogue molecules that cause cell damage and are implicated in various diseases, including cancer.

Glucosinolates, another subject of study, are compounds found in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables. They’re thought to guard against inflammation.

Compounds being studied are “very, very complex phytochemicals (plant chemicals),” said Lila. In blueberries, for instance, “The interaction between them is what really packs the punch.”

Learning by doing

Students are learning to present their research both to each other and to the public.

Every Friday, there’s what Lila calls an “all hands on deck” meeting where teams present the results of their week’s work.

And at the end of last summer, a scientific journal, Frontiers in Genetics, published a paper written by that season’s interns. It was “Students’ Perspective on Genomics: From Sample to Sequence Using the Case Study of Blueberry.”

“It’s almost unheard of to be able to publish anything after three months of work,” said Lila.

P2EP, which starts accepting student applications each March, “is an incredible career opportunity,” Lila said.

Once interns graduate, she said, “They’re going to be golden in the marketplace.”

Even now, their work is contributing to what they and their mentors hope will be the development of plants grown specifically for disease-fighting ability.

Ground rules specify that it’s an “open source” project – meaning that nothing is proprietary and results will be available to scientists all over the world.

Once you know how a plant makes a compound, said Lila, then you can use traditional breeding techniques “to make a plant that’s better able to make that compound.”

Valuable, real-world experience

Koyt Everhart III, 26, has reached one of his dreams early, thanks to a 2013 P2EP summer internship

He’s listed as a co-author of not one, but two, scientific papers in national journals.

The first was the paper published last year in Frontiers of Genetics.

The second, accepted but not yet published by Theoretical and Applied Genetics, was done with several of the professional scientists mentoring the P2EP interns. It investigates compounds in broccoli.

A Winston-Salem native who grew up in Charlotte, Everhart said, “I’d just been counting down to the day when I could get my first publication.”

He studied biology as an undergraduate and was in a master’s program in bioinformatics at UNC Charlotte last year when he applied for the internship. It was the bridge that put him right between those two disciplines, he says.

“Today we produce so much biological data, it’s unwieldy,” he said. Bioinformatics allows computers to do the organizing, “so we can get the big picture fast and quick. What might take 50 years becomes 5 seconds.”

All the interns were enthusiastic, he said, “because they were involved in real projects. Homework is one thing, but you really want to get your hands on something practical.”

Now Everhart is on the staff of another N.C. Research Campus institution, the UNC Nutrition Research Institute, probing the effects of nutrition on gout, kidney and cardiovascular disease.

The process: Grapes point the way

Students studying blueberry anthocyanin are confronted with what bioinformatics mentor Dr. Rob Reid calls “mystery pieces” of DNA. They set out to answer these questions: 1) Do the pieces have genes involved in anthocyanin production? and 2) Where on the entire genome – and on what chromosome – do they belong?

For the first question, they consult available literature on grapes, another highly colored, anthocyanin-rich fruit whose genome has already been sequenced.

In doing so, said P2EP Director Mary Ann Lila, students learn critical thinking. “How do we make sense of the literature that’s out there? How do we glean from it what we need?”

Computers help them to determine whether their blueberry pieces have similar, and therefore relevant, genes.

In the lab, students load the pieces into gels and run an electric current through them to produce a score based on their size.

Existing data on blueberries have already assigned scores to some of the genome’s fragments, or scaffolds, and they’re represented by small slips of paper on a genome map posted outside the office of mentor Allan Brown.

If students determine that one of their fragments has a score close to one on the chart, they will post a slip of paper representing it nearby. If the score is exactly the same, it will be “right next to it” on both the map and the genome, Brown said.

After three weeks of work, students had put about 100 fragments on the map, out of the 12,000 in the entire genome.

But, said Brown, “These ones are the biggest pieces. If we can get to 500 by the end of summer, I’ll be real excited.”

A similar process is being followed with the other foods, and Lila said that the oats genome, while not completely sequenced, “is getting really close.”

Jul 282014


By Natasha Singer

July 27, 2014

Before Daniel Stompor arrived on campus last fall for his first year at Northwestern University, he went on Facebook, looking for a roommate.

Although Northwestern, in Evanston, Ill., has traditionally assigned roommates to incoming students, the school recently started offering another option: a matching app on Facebook, called RoomSync, that lets students search for and select their own roomies. Stompor, who is from the Chicago area, decided to try it.

In high school, he was a member of the cross-country team and acted in plays. But he wasn’t seeking his doppelgänger on RoomSync. In the app’s “about me” section, he says, he described himself as “pretty easygoing.”

The app also asked him to rate his preferences concerning neatness, music volume, noise tolerance and dorm-room guests. Based on his answers, it generated a list of suggested roommates for him, complete with their names and profile photographs, ranked in order of compatibility.

“It was one of the highlights of my freshman year, the fact that I had a choice in that,” Stompor said recently.

With the idea of fostering roommate harmony, many colleges have long asked incoming students to fill out basic questionnaires about habits such as smoking. Although some schools considered roommate requests on an individual basis, they tended to automatically assign first-year roommates based on a handful of details – even if those data were inaccurate.

“A lot of times, the parents filled it out,” says Joe Lindwall, vice president for marketing at StarRez, a company that provides housing management software to about 250 campuses in North America. “Suddenly everyone is a nonsmoker, goes to bed by 10 p.m. and is very studious.”

Personalized process

But digital natives raised on Netflix, Amazon and other recommendation engines expect a more participatory, personalized process. Many undergraduate institutions are obliging them by adopting roommate-on-demand systems.

“I’ve seen that the matches that RoomSync makes are good matches,” says Mark D’Arienzo, Northwestern’s senior associate director of residential services. “It allows students to interact and develop relationships two to three months before they come on campus.”

That was Stompor’s experience. After communicating with a few potential roommates, he received a message from a Chicagoan, Nathaniel Kier, who had found him through the app. They friended each other on Facebook, exchanged a flurry of messages, discovered they were both film buffs and officially requested each other as roommates. Northwestern approved.

Even though their dorm room turned out to be so cramped that they had to sleep in bunk beds, they got along well. “It helped me find where I fit in at Northwestern a lot faster,” Stompor says.

Ultimately, college officials hope that these roommate-recommendation engines can combat a costly problem: interpersonal conflicts so severe that they can prompt students to transfer to other schools before their sophomore year.

“The first six weeks are so critical to anchor a person into the fabric of an institution,” says Maurice Washington, the associate dean of residential life at Morehouse College in Atlanta; it lets first-year students use StarRez to select their roommates. “If you are in a residence hall, if we can get that right – the space in the nonacademic venue – that goes a long way to solving the retention issue.”

Risk of ‘homophily’

Compared to lost tuition and housing fees, which could amount to tens of thousands of dollars for just one student, the cost of roommate-matching services may seem insignificant. StarRez charges institutions $30,000 or more – plus annual support fees – for comprehensive housing management software, including online roommate and dorm-room selection, along with room maintenance tracking. RoomSync charges $1,000 to $15,000 a year, depending on the size of the school.

Yet roommate self-selection carries a risk: People often reflexively seek out others who resemble themselves, a tendency called “homophily.” That is an issue for institutions that still consider learning to live with – and perhaps even like – peers of different backgrounds, faiths and interests to be an important part of an undergraduate education. After all, a musician as a roommate might extend a rugby player’s social and cultural life, or vice versa.

To enable some serendipity, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill uses a masking option on StarRez. Incoming students register under screen names, not their real names, and potential matches are displayed without profile photos.

“The risk of the technology – and of not meeting face to face – is that it can also result in people not wanting to room together based on differences like race or sexual orientation,” says Rick Bradley, the university’s associate director of housing and residential education. “That’s certainly not what we believe in.”

Jul 252014


By Jane Stancill

July 25, 2014


CHAPEL HILL — At a time when universities are making new promises to take care of athletes during and after their playing years, UNC-Chapel Hill will give scholarships and counseling to help former athletes finish their degrees.

A new program, dubbed Complete Carolina, was announced Thursday by Chancellor Carol Folt.

The university has always encouraged athletes who left school early to earn their degrees eventually, Folt said. The program is a way to formalize that and put new resources into it, she said. Scholarships will be funded by the booster organization known as the Rams Club, and other expenses will be covered by the athletic department.

“This really will extend for life,” Folt said at a board of trustees meeting. “We’ll try to get as many (student athletes) as possible back, and it’s our hope that all students will eventually return to be able to complete their degree.”

In a new era of congressional scrutiny of the NCAA, legal challenges and talk of unionization by college players, the landscape of athletes’ benefits is changing.

Last month, Indiana University announced a bill of rights for athletes, including a lifetime guarantee of free tuition. Seeking to save the amateur model of collegiate athletics, presidents in the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences have signed letters arguing for four-year scholarship guarantees, educational trust funds and medical benefits for student athletes.

“Part of the national discussion is: What do we provide for students? We provide them an education,” said UNC-CH’s athletic director, Bubba Cunningham. “That’s what the collegiate model is. So we want to fulfill that obligation for all of our students.”

The Complete Carolina program will start accepting applications Sept. 1. Former athletes who left the university in good academic standing will be able to resume their scholarship at comparable support, including tuition, fees, room, board and books.

Cunningham said the university graduates 90 percent of its student athletes, but going back decades, there could be hundreds of athletes who didn’t earn a degree. It’s unclear how many would be interested or how much the program could cost. He estimated 30 to 40 former athletes have returned to school in the past decade.

‘Right thing to do’

“We hope we can get as many students attracted as possible,” Cunningham said, “because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

It’s not unusual for universities to extend help to athletes who want to get their diplomas after their eligibility has expired. But generally, universities don’t have formal programs or guarantees.

Duke, Wake Forest and East Carolina universities provide financial support for athletes who want to earn a diploma, on a case-by-case basis.

For example, a former baseball letterman who left to play professionally in 2007 is on campus this summer for coursework and will graduate this fall, Duke University spokesman Art Chase said. Duke’s athletic department is providing financial aid to him, Chase said.

ECU’s director of communications, Mary Schulken, said that in rare cases when ECU doesn’t have available money, it works to get the necessary funding from the NCAA, which has a degree-completion program.

Two former ECU athletes who left school early to pursue professional sports are back on campus working toward degrees, Schulken said. The university is also establishing a life skills program for athletes.

UNC-CH will add academic advisers, if necessary, and actively recruit athletes to return to campus, Folt said. For those who can’t come to Chapel Hill, Cunningham said, “we need to look at an educational trust fund where they could finish that degree somewhere else. I think this is a great way to start that dialogue.”

The university’s football coach, Larry Fedora, said of the announcement: “Well, I think it’s awesome. … I think it’s something that ought to be done all over the country. And I’m proud that we’re one of the first to do it.”

Wainstein investigation

UNC-CH’s announcement comes at a time when the quality of athletes’ education is under a microscope. Independent investigator Kenneth Wainstein is probing academic fraud and misconduct at Chapel Hill, particularly no-show classes that featured a disproportionate number of athletes.

The NCAA also reopened an investigation into the athletic department.

Earlier this year, former UNC basketball star Rashad McCants said in an ESPN interview that he rarely went to class when he was a student. McCants said tutors wrote his papers and that men’s basketball coach Roy Williams knew about the “paper classes” in African and Afro-American Studies, in which class was not held and students were only required to write a final paper.

Williams has denied the allegation, and other former Tar Heel basketball players have dismissed comments by McCants, who was a member of the 2005 national championship team.

On Thursday, Folt said the NCAA’s renewed investigation wasn’t unexpected. Wainstein’s inquiry will conclude fairly soon, she said, but she did not provide a target date for his final report.

UNC responds to scandal

Here is a sampling of changes made by UNC-Chapel Hill in the aftermath of the academic and athletic scandals.

• New student record and tracking database. Allows for better monitoring of grades and records.

• Classroom checks. The university makes spot inspections to ensure scheduled classes are meeting.

• New standards for course syllabi. Explains requirements, expectations and honor code.

• Stricter guidelines and limits for independent study courses.

• New oversight of teaching assignments for faculty.

• New oversight, policies and procedures for summer school.

• Reorganized African and Afro-American Studies, with new administration and governance. Reinforced grading policy and reviewed curriculum. The department was renamed African, African American and Diaspora Studies.

• Reorganized Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, with a new leader who reports to the provost.

• Started a My Academic Plan initiative, which gives student-athletes individualized plans according to their preparation and needs.

• Strategic plan for the athletic department, announced in 2012.

• Reorganized athletic department with new staff.

• Launched a review of student-athletes’ academic experience, from recruitment to graduation.

• Revamped Faculty Athletics Committee.

• Reduced numbers of prospective student-athletes who require special committee review because they don’t meet academic requirements. In 2013, 14 prospective student-athletes required such review.

• Faculty advisory committee reviews the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes.

• Student-Athlete Advisory Council provides input from athletes.

To see the entire list of changes, go to http://carolinacommitment.unc.edu/reforms.

Staff writers Andrew Carter and Laura Keeley contributed to this report

Jul 252014


By Jane Dail

July 25, 2014

After about two weeks of fine-tuning ideas for inventions to solve common problems, a group of middle school students showed off their hard work and even caught the attention of a network TV show.

The Middle School Innovators Academy — a partnership between the Pitt County Development Commission, DSM Dyneema, Pitt County Schools, Beaufort County Schools and the North East Carolina Preparatory School — had its participants present ideas on Thursday morning at East Carolina University’s Willis Building.

At the same time, the ABC show “Shark Tank,” which gives participants a chance to pitch ideas in front of potential millionaire and billionaire investors, was holding open calls a few blocks away.

Mindy Zemrak, casting manager for the show, said she heard about MSIA through a newspaper report and wanted to check it out.

“When we found out it was right across the street, we thought it makes total sense to head over here and talk to these kids and see what they have going on and see if they’d be interested in being on the show,” Zemrak said.

She said some expressed interest in trying out for the show in the future.

“They all have potential,” she said. “They all have really unique, creative, out-of-the-box ideas. … If not now and they’re not ready, definitely very, very soon they will be.”

Zemrak spoke to each of the students about their ideas. Poster boards and models of their inventions were made out of foam, wood, cardboard and other materials.

Wayne Godwin, MSIA director and director of the ECU Innovation Design Lab, said there are great aspects in all of the ideas that could be further developed.

“The idea is that they go through this process one time and they become repeat offenders,” he said. “They actually learn how to begin to refine them.”

Bedie Kohake, DSM Dyneema plant engineer and MSIA volunteer, said she enjoys being part of the camp which she said challenges the way she thinks.

“I like to learn from the students,” Kohake said. “It’s inspiring, because they think outside of the box.”

Academy student Tucker Davis, 12, came up with an idea for a wearable drink container for when he plays sports.

“Its a bracelet that can hold water, so if you’re like surfing or running or playing a sport, you can just drink out of it,” Tucker said. “You don’t have to stop to get something to drink.”

Several of the ideas were animal-related, including a vest that would help prevent injuries when falling off a horse and a cat habitat that also grooms.

Carlos Ochoa, 13, came up with the idea for a smart dog door, which would use collars with RFID tags and a phone application to track and allow entry.

“Say if you have two pets, a cat and a dog and you only allow your cat to go out at certain times, you can lock your cat from going out,” he said.

Ochoa said the invention would allow owners the convenience of dog doors without the possibility of stray or wild animals wandering into homes.

Amy Campbell attended the presentations with her son Riley, 11, who came up with an idea for a solar flower pot with an electrical outlet.

“I just thought this would be just a great opportunity for him to be with other kids and be creative and not to be afraid to express his ideas,” she said. “As adults, we have a lot of boundaries that keep us from trying to explore things.”

Campbell said her son may be interested in having an invention to present on “Shark Tank” eventually.

“Today I had no idea what his invention was, and Riley’s really shy,” she said. “I wouldn’t have thought he would’ve stood up there and interact and do everything he’s done. There’s no telling what Riley’s going to do.”

Zemrak said the camp stood out to “Shark Tank” staff because people are inspired by young entrepreneurs.

“We’ve had several entrepreneurs that are in their teens,” she said. “I think our youngest last year was 6 years old. … We love kid entrepreneurs, because they’re what’s going to build America … and we like to give kind of a fair shot to everyone.”

Jul 252014


Development and climate change are causing the islands to slowly vanish, scientists say.

Picture of a house being movedRising sea levels and beach erosion are threatening houses in the Outer Banks; this one is being moved farther from shore. Photograph by David Alan Harvey, National Geographic

Sara Peach

Published July 25, 2014

The tourists flocking to North Carolina’s Outer Banks right now know that the joys of summer there—the gorgeous beaches, the wild horses, the views of the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras—come to an end as the season fades.

But they may not know that the place itself is disappearing from the map.

Under the combined effects of storms, development, and sea-level rise, portions of this narrow, 200-mile island chain are collapsing, says Stanley Riggs, a coastal geologist at East Carolina University in Greenville.

“We’re losing them right now,” he says. “In the next ten years, it’s going to be awful.”

In an area of Hatteras Island between Avon and Buxton, the beach has receded about 2,500 feet in the past 150 years. That portion of the island has narrowed to just 25 percent of its original width, according to Riggs. In Buxton and Rodanthe, and farther north in Nags Head, houses and hotels once solidly on land stand on spindly stilts in the surf.

State Highway 12, the only road to Hatteras Island, repeatedly has buckled and washed out during storms. It briefly closed after Hurricane Arthur made landfall July 3.

The erosion is set to worsen as sea-level rise accelerates around the world because of global warming. (Read “Rising Seas” in National Geographic magazine.)

As that happens, coastal communities everywhere will face the same wrenching decisions that confront Outer Banks inhabitants today—and that are causing enormous fear there, says Michael Orbach, professor emeritus of marine policy at Duke University’s marine lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. What’s at stake for locals is not just summer fun but a way of life and an entire economy that is now based on tourism.

“All these effects that people have been talking about for years are now actually starting to be seen,” Orbach says. “And they realize that we don’t know what to do about it.”

Picture of people sitting on steps in waterA family sits on the steps of what was once their summer home, destroyed by Hurricane Irene in August 2011. Photograph by David Alan Harvey, National Geographic

Picture of condemned houses on a beachOcean waves lap the stilts of a row of condemned homes in Nags Head in June 2014. Photograph by Nikki Kahn, Washington Post/Getty Images

A Prediction, Then a Backlash

Riggs has been studying the state’s coastline since 1967, when he got a job at East Carolina University to start a coastal and marine science program in an unused building on Roanoke Island. In 2010, he was a member of a science panel that produced a controversial report warning that North Carolina could face 39 inches (1 meter) of sea-level rise by 2100, as glaciers melt and ocean waters warm and expand.

The report prompted a backlash from coastal developers and climate skeptics—and in 2012, from the state. Lawmakers in Raleigh considered a bill that would have prohibited state agencies from planning for accelerated sea-level rise.

Environmentalists were outraged, bloggers snickered, and even comedian Stephen Colbert weighed in: “If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal,” he joked. “Problem solved.”

Eventually, the state settled on a watered-down version of the law: a four-year moratorium on sea-level regulations, and an order for a new scientific study of sea-level rise, due out in 2015. In May, a state commission asked the science panel to limit its next sea-level forecast to 30 years.

The irony of the whole argument, Riggs says, is that the coast as we know it is already vanishing. “Sea-level rise and storms are taking out eastern North Carolina today—not a hundred years from now. They’re doing it today,” he says.

Two other scientists who have studied North Carolina’s coast, Orrin Pilkey, an emeritus professor of Earth sciences at Duke University in Durham, and Rob Young, director of a shoreline research program at Duke and Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, agree that the islands are undergoing significant changes.

“Portions of the Outer Banks, particularly Hatteras Island, are in big, big trouble right now,” says Young, who was also a member of the sea-level science panel. “That barrier island is falling apart.”

As barrier islands, the Outer Banks experience the natural process of shifting sands, which creates inlets. Inlets provide a pathway for both humans and the aquatic ecosystem between the sound and the ocean. They’re also yet another measure of the vulnerability of islands such as these.


Map of a lighthouse

When Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built in 1870, it stood a safe 1,500 feet from the ocean. After a century of natural shoreline erosion, the ocean was a mere 120 feet away. In 1999 the lighthouse was relocated to a safer location.

“Critical Condition”

One evening in late June, Carol Dawson, owner of the Cape Hatteras Motel in Buxton, on Hatteras Island, gazed out at the surf from her motel balcony. Over the years, she has watched the ocean eat closer to her buildings.

“Our property line is about where that wave is cresting,” she says, gesturing toward a point about 500 feet out in the water.

At the motel next door, owned by Dawson’s mother, children capered on sandbags piled on what remains of the beach. Every few minutes, a wave washed around the sandbags and under the steps of the motel units closest to the water.

Dawson says repeated closures of State Highway 12 have hurt business on Hatteras Island. As the ocean edges closer to her motel, Dawson says her business is in critical condition.

In 2012, according to the U.S. Travel Association, tourism generated $926 million just in Dare County, which includes most of Hatteras Island, Kitty Hawk, and the town of Nags Head. Summer visitors swell the population of Nags Head from 3,000 to 60,000.

“Our only industry is the tourist industry, and without a beach there is no tourist industry,” says Nags Head Mayor Bob Edwards.

Picture of a road broken by waterRoute 12 on Hatteras Island was cut in five locations by Hurricane Irene. Photograph by Steve Helber, AP

Shifting Sands

People often describe the Outer Banks as fragile, but the sandy islands are remarkably resilient, at least in the natural course of things. Just as engineers design buildings in earthquake zones to sway with the movements of the Earth, barrier islands move in response to storms and sea-level rise.

During the last ice age, 20,000 years ago, so much water was locked up in continental ice sheets that sea level was 410 feet lower than it is today, and the Atlantic coastline was 15 to 40 miles east of the present-day Outer Banks, according to a book Riggs co-authored, The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis, and Vision for the Future.

Barrier islands formed off North Carolina’s coast at least 7,000 years ago, after most of the ice had melted. Over the millennia, as sea-level rise continued at a slower pace, the islands and the sound behind them moved landward. They began forming in their current location 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, when the sea all but stopped rising.

Since 1900, it’s been rising again at an accelerated pace, due in large part, climate scientists say, to man-made global warming. In principle, the islands should be migrating west.

The mechanism works like this: From time to time, storms slice new inlets through the islands. Seawater rushes through, depositing sand behind them. Meanwhile, waves and wind push sand across the top of the islands. As the ocean side erodes and the sound side grows, the islands slowly roll over themselves, like a bulldozer’s tread.

Or at least they would if the same development that transformed the Outer Banks into a vacation wonderland hadn’t jammed the machinery of island migration.

Picture of houses in a hurricaneIn 1954, Hurricane Hazel washed out houses in Morehead City, North Carolina. Photograph by Clifton Guthrie, AP

Before World War II, the people who lived in the islands’ fishing communities built their houses on high ground, far from the ocean’s edge, and traveled by boat. That started to change in the 1950s, when paving began on State Highway 12. To protect the road from storms, workers piled sand east of the highway on artificial dunes first built in the 1930s. When storms carved inlets through the road, engineers filled them.

The dune-building and inlet-filling blocked the movement of sand across the islands. On the ocean side, the islands kept eroding, but now they didn’t grow on the sound side. So they narrowed.

Other engineering projects meant to protect human activities, such as dredging and building hard structures called jetties and groins, made erosion worse, Riggs says.

Even so, the road brought tourists, and a new economy developed around beachfront rental homes, hotels, and stores. The permanent population of Dare County, about 35,000, is six times as large today as it was in 1950—and the residents all have a stake in preserving the islands where they are.

The ultimate fate of the islands depends on how quickly the rise in sea level accelerates in the coming decades and how many major hurricanes slam the islands. Riggs predicts the lowest, narrowest islands could break up into a system of small, eroded island remnants and shoals.

Without human interference, the islands would adapt to accelerating sea-level rise by migrating west, says Duke’s Pilkey. Instead, because of engineering projects, they’re “standing perfectly still, and we’re beating our head against the wall trying to hold those shorelines in place.”

Will we succeed?

“No, of course not.”

Picture of a man walking on a damaged roadA Dare County sheriff’s deputy walks down damaged Route 12 after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Photograph by Steve Earley, Virginian-Pilot/AP

To Stay or to Go?

Riggs has proposed that the state remove portions of State Highway 12 and stop maintaining the large dunes that protect it. Withdrawing the road and dunes would allow sand to wash over the islands and rebuild them. In his view, tourists could travel by ferry, like those that connect people to Ocracoke and Bald Head Islands today.

The idea doesn’t appeal to locals, who say ferries couldn’t keep pace with the number of visitors who want access to the islands. “It’s not 1950,” says Dawson, the motel owner. She’s in favor of shoring up narrowing beaches with sand delivered from elsewhere.

The town of Nags Head completed a $36 million “beach nourishment project” in 2011, paid for with local taxes. Edwards, the mayor of Nags Head, says nourishment protected the tourism industry and buffered the town during Hurricane Sandy.

According to a survey conducted in June by the contracting company that completed the Nags Head project, 97 percent of the sand from the project still remains. But Nags Head may be an outlier; Riggs says other beach nourishment projects in the state lasted only two or three years.

Beach nourishment isn’t a long-term solution, says Orbach, the marine policy specialist, because there isn’t enough sand to go around for all of the communities on the Atlantic Coast that will want it in the next 50 years.

“As a practical matter, we will try to defend some places for some period of time,” he says. “But also as a practical matter, we will not be able to defend most coastal places throughout time. We will, in fact, retreat from most coastal places when the sea level gets more than one or two meters above where it is now.”

For Hatteras residents such as Ernie Foster, 69, a charter-boat captain, retreat would mean more than packing a moving van. Foster’s great-grandparents and grandparents were born on the Outer Banks.

When Hurricane Arthur came through in early July, he stayed home, despite a mandatory evacuation order. He loves the way his community sticks together to rebuild after a storm, he says.

Asked how he would feel about leaving Hatteras, Foster’s eyes well up.

“My family cemetery, down behind the home that I grew up in, is one in which my grandfather and my father and mother and some uncles and aunts are buried, and I will be buried there as well,” Foster says. “When the island washes away, I’ll just go with it.”

Eileen Mignoni contributed reporting.

Picture of seafoam washing over a seawallHigh waves hit the breakwater near the Avalon Pier in Nags Head during 2010′s Tropical Storm Sean. Photograph by David Alan Harvey, National Geographic

Jul 252014


By Thomas W. Ross

July 24, 2014

Across the 17-campus University of North Carolina system, we are constantly seeking new ways to become more efficient, using more shared services, streamlining academic and operational processes, and supporting collective e-purchasing. Another area in which we have been working hard to contain costs and are making real headway is using less water and energy and saving on utility costs.

UNC campuses and affiliates, including UNC Hospitals, spend nearly $225 million a year on energy and water – more than 60 percent of the total utility spending for all state agencies. We are committed to reducing this major expenditure and know that small changes can have significant cumulative effects.

Just last month, two UNC campuses – Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University – claimed top-10 spots in the 2014 Campus Conservation Nationals contest, an annual competition among colleges in the U.S. and Canada to save energy and water. Over the past decade, we have cut system-wide energy consumption by more than 25 percent and water consumption by about 45 percent through a variety of conservation and technical remediation efforts. During that same period, we have avoided more than $387 million in combined energy and water costs.

We are well on the way to meeting the target set by the state of a 30 percent reduction in energy and water use by 2015 but know we must do more. While the financial savings are important, we also are committed to preserving our natural and environmental resources for future generations. The UNC System Sustainability Policy adopted in 2009 sets a goal for the university to become “carbon neutral” by 2050 at the latest.

While continued conservation efforts are essential, they are not the total solution. Electricity accounts for more than half of UNC’s utility expenditures, and the ability to generate part of our own energy through solar and other alternative methods would present the greatest opportunity to lower future energy costs and lessen our impact on the environment.

Recently, George Washington University and American University – both in Washington, D.C – entered into a 20-year agreement with Duke Energy to buy solar power generated in the northeastern corner of North Carolina at a fixed price. This long-term arrangement will provide clean electricity that meets over half of both universities’ needs, while lowering their energy costs and helping them meet their carbon-reduction goals.

For now, statutory restrictions prevent UNC from entering into a similar purchasing agreement – even though North Carolina ranks fourth nationally for installed solar capacity. These restrictions also make it very difficult for UNC campuses to lease solar panels on our own rooftops or land and to keep and use the clean, renewable power they generate. Looking forward, we hope state policymakers will revisit this issue and consider enabling non-utility entities, including the university, to generate and use their own power.

Our efforts to find more ways to conserve energy and water will continue at the Appalachian Energy Summit, UNC’s third annual Energy Leadership Conference, which begins Monday at Appalachian State University. I hope that attendees from across the state will keep their commitment to explore and advocate policy changes that support our continued reduction of energy usage and costs, as well as opportunities to invest in clean, more affordable energy.