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On the Outer Banks, a sea change is in the wind

Wanchese is a small fishing village, located on the southern end of Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Roanoke is a curious place -- protected from the Atlantic tides by the Outer Banks, it was home to the first English settlement in 1585. Notoriously, the entire colony vanished without a trace two years later, and many legends circulate as to the fate of the colonists. Today, Roanoke is settled again, with the rather upmarket village of Manteo to the north and the working-class village of Wanchese to the south, where my parents recently purchased a 1910 farmhouse. It was from there I would begin my journey.

My planned road trip would take me from Roanoke Island to Ocracoke Island, 90 miles to the south, down along the thin strip of sand known as the Outer Banks, a popular tourist destination for many east coast families. My motivation was ostensibly to get out of the house, but I was also struck by an urge to revisit the places of my youth, and predict their futures.

Stopping off at the local Duck Thru for cigarettes and soda, I saw pickups towing motorboats, cute girls in cutoff jeans stocking coolers with Bud Light while their heavyset fathers and husbands tended to their fishing poles.

My family had been coming down to the Outer Banks for years, my dad's parents first coming in the 50s when the islands were more desolate than they are now. Back then it took a half-hour ferry from the mainland to reach the Banks; today the Washington Baum bridge allows passage in two minutes, if you don't hit any red lights.

Once across the bridge, I reached the town of Nags Head, stopping off at Jennette's Pier to enjoy the view of the water. The original, ramshackle 1939 pier had been pounded to smithereens by Hurricane Isabel in 2004. The new structure is built to last, with solid, steel-reinforced concrete piers sunk deep to resist the harsh barrage of the wind and the waves. I give it thirty years, tops.

Hurricane Isabel was the first of several 21st-century storms to batter the islands. Driving south through Nags Head, I saw new beach houses, massive four-story monstrosities in garish pastel colors, each trying to outdo its neighbors for a glimpse of the ocean over the dunes. I knew that most of those houses would be knocked down when the next storm came, while their older neighbors, the original bungalows like the one my parents stayed in on their honeymoon, would stand strong.

Beyond Nags Head came the untouched splendor of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Stretching 70 miles down the coast, it was untouched by the construction boom that dominated most of the seaside towns. But it couldn't protect itself from the ocean waves that battered it mercilessly. In 2012, the state of North Carolina passed a law forbidding coastal communities from taking note of a climate change report that estimated a sea level rise of 39 inches within the next century. Effectively, they outlawed climate change.

Driving south, I couldn't help but notice long stretches of the dunes that were severely compromised. These massive hills of sand serve to protect the islands from storm surges. Within the last fifteen years, however, the ocean has penetrated these dunes at multiple points, washing away Highway 12, and several houses along with it. Attempts to plant sea oats and other erosion prevention measures have met limited success.

Fifty miles later, I stopped off to have a look at Cape Hatteras lighthouse. At 193 feet high, it's the tallest lighthouse in America. By 1990, however, it was in danger of collapse. The Atlantic ocean, originally at a safe distance, had advanced to within 15 feet of the lighthouse, threatening to overrun the historic structure. In 1999, the structure was moved almost 3,000 feet inland, a momentous and costly undertaking. The lighthouse is safe, for now: the shoreline has since receded another twenty feet.

I moved on, catching the two o'clock ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke. Ocracoke Island could be called the jewel of the Outer Banks. As it's only accessible by ferry or private boat, it sees less of a tourist infestation than the other communities. Blackbeard valued the land for its privacy, using it as a hideout and party spot until he met his end at the hands of English bounty-hunters off its shore in 1718. In the 60s, my dad and his parents spent summers in a small bungalow near the pirate's haunting grounds. Today, its quiet streets are lined with old farmhouses and small, Mom-and-Pop stores.

I drove out to the old bungalow, and found it still standing, though surrounded by development. Across the channel, I spotted Portsmouth Island. Though once a prosperous fishing village, by the 60s the island was too inaccessible to survive. Today it's a ghost town of rotting houses and collapsing docks.

Looking out toward that relic of these islands's pasts, I suddenly grasp that I may in fact be looking at their future. Will the Banks be inhabitable twenty years from now? I don't know the answer to that, but I know that until these islands vanish beneath the waves, I'll keep coming back until there is nothing to come back to.