• Credit: Hyunsoo Leo Kim / The Virginian-Pilot

They're widening the beach again along North Carolina's Route 12, the slender two-lane asphalt lifeline that links the Outer Banks to the mainland. The Virginian-Pilot has the story here (see: "$20.3 million sand project widens Outer Banks beach," by Jeff Hampton).

 "The Corps of Engineers hired Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. last month to widen the beach along 2 miles from just inside Rodanthe north into Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Corps of Engineers is administering the project for the North Carolina Department of Transportation," the paper reports. "Adding nearly 300 feet of beach is expected to protect N.C. 12 long enough for the state to build a bridge 17 feet above the existing pavement, to keep it safe from ocean encroachment for the next half-century."

But that bridge is far from a sure thing. If opponents have their way, it may be built somewhere else — or not at all, and certainly no time soon. North Carolina's Department of Transportation, which wants to replace the aging Bonner Bridge serving the area with a new modern span, got a setback in court this month. The Raleigh News-Observer has that report (see: "Appellate court rules against NCDOT bid to replace Outer Banks bridge," by Bruce Siceloff). Reports the paper: "The state Department of Transportation cannot build its 2.8-mile replacement for the deteriorating Oregon Inlet bridge unless it proves there's no way to avoid damaging an Outer Banks national wildlife refuge, a federal appellate court ruled Wednesday."

The appeals court agreed with the Southern Environmental Law Center's contention that North Carolina was obligated to study alternative routes for the bridge project, even if those routes are likely to cost far more than the $215 million budget for the state's current plan. While the state might still conclude that other plans are infeasible, the requirement to study other possibilities will introduce further years of delay — even as the existing bridge and road continue to deteriorate.

But in terms of the big picture, time may not be on the Outer Banks' side, no matter what the state or the courts may decide. As National Geographic reports, it's an open question whether the Outer Banks themselves can survive at all, and for how long (see: "Rising Seas: Will the Outer Banks Survive?" by Sara Peach).

"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," National Geographic reports. "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.'"

Says Riggs: "Sea-level rise and storms are taking out eastern North Carolina today—not a hundred years from now. They're doing it today."