The Outer Banks is a paradise for residents and tourists alike. The string of islands, laid end to end just off the coast of North Carolina and a portion of Virginia, are beloved for their stunning beaches, picturesque towns, and pleasant weather. Many resident families have been there for generations, and visitors often return season after season to take advantage of the sun and the scenery.
But the Outer Banks, like many coastal communities in the United States and around the world, is up against a dire challenge. As global temperatures continue to heat up, causing an ever-lengthening list of consequences such as sea-level rise, drought, and intense storms, the very existence of the islands may be in jeopardy.
The Outer Banks could be devastated in the next 50-100 years as rising sea levels threaten to sweep away the 200-mile-long string of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast.
A 2010 North Carolina report warned that local sea levels could rise as much as 55 inches by the end of the century if no major actions are taken to curtail climate change.
This map, from the US Geological Survey, shows how vulnerable different parts of the North Carolina coast are to sea level change. The red areas have very high vulnerability, and the orange areas have high vulnerability.
Here's a projection of what Cape Hatteras would look like after a 3-foot sea-level rise. Darker blue areas show deeper water -- and those lighter blue areas show land that is currently above sea level but would be underwater.
This will be Kitty Hawk, the famed site of the Wright Brothers' first flight, after three feet of sea-level rise.
In addition to swamping the islands, sea-level rise could seep into coastal aquifers and contaminate drinking water.
The Outer Banks have gotten a taste of the ocean's power the past few years with a series of hurricanes. Hurricane Irene (2011), Hurricane Sandy (2012), and Hurricane Arthur (2014) all brought winds, rains, and floodwaters surging through the islands.
Temperatures will rise as well. This chart shows projections for annual average temperatures in the Southeast US through the end of the century. In a higher emissions scenario -- a situation in which humans fail to curb greenhouse gas emissions -- annual averages could leap into the 70s.
Sea turtles could suffer too, as rising sea levels sweep away the beaches where they lay their eggs year after year.
For now, North Carolina isn't even designing its coastal policies with accelerated sea-level rise in mind. The news from the 2010 sea level report was upsetting to coastal residents and climate sceptics, who pressured the state government to kill the report.
In 2012, the state responded by placing a four-year moratorium, good through 2016, on using the sea level projections to create policies for coastal communities.
The NC Coastal Resources Commission has asked the Science Panel to write another report with a projection for only the next 30 years -- a limited timeline that fails to convey the true dangers of sea level rise in the state. The new report will be released next year.
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