From the mountains to the sea: Coastal geologist speaks his mind

Erosion problems are found at the north end of Folly Beach.
Erosion problems are found at the north end of Folly Beach. Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission

ASHEVILLE, N.C. Speaking at a conference last summer in western North Carolina, Rob Young explained how the ocean is flooding coastal property and threatening to consume more land at a time of increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather.

Young's plainspoken assessment had a room of journalists listening carefully as the 53-year-old geologist discussed why climate change has consequences that can’t be ignored.

“I just want everybody to admit that it’s happening and we have to do something,’’ Young said.

The presentation he gave last August is among a range of work Young is doing these days as one of the Southeast’s foremost coastal scientists.

Young, a disarmingly friendly researcher with South Carolina ties, directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

Among the program’s main functions are studying the hazards of sea level rise and beach erosion, while recommending ways to better manage coastal development and brace for the ocean’s onslaught. He and fellow researchers now are involved in projects to help the National Park Service protect important buildings and roads from coastal storms and rising seas.

Founded by Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey three decades ago, the developed shorelines program has been involved in many testy debates with politicians and government regulators over coastal development. Pilkey, a geologist revered by his students but reviled by coastal developers, rose to prominence in the 1980s as he called for a halt to building in high-risk coastal areas.

Like Pilkey, Young is outspoken and quick with an opinion on why building close to the ocean is a bad idea, particularly as sea levels rise. He has testified in cases against coastal developers and clashed with South Carolina politicians over the Palmetto State’s beach construction policies.

Last fall, property owners at Debordieu Beach, on the northern South Carolina coast, contacted newspapers to complain about comments Young made on the wisdom of spending federal money to renourish eroding beaches with extra sand. At the Asheville conference, Young said some renourished beaches were so lifeless that a seagull with a french fry was virtually all the wildlife people might see on the strand.

In North Carolina, Young resigned from a coastal scientific panel two years ago after he felt politicians were interfering with the panel’s work. He’s an outspoken critic of North Carolina’s conservative political shift in recent years, which he contends has been shown to be anti-science.

But Young, who also has testified before Congress on coastal issues, said he’s not interested in stirring controversy.

Instead, he wants to conduct sound research and educate people on the threats of sea level rise, storms and climate change. And he wants to help them make better decisions about responding to coastal hazards, such as whether to move beach houses back from the seashore. Young said abandoning the coast is unrealistic in many places, but wiser coastal policies are needed.

“We are trying to communicate science to decision-makers,’’ he said. “Sometimes, folks don’t exactly want to hear what we have to say.’’

Young gives numerous talks about climate change and coastal hazards, not only to fellow scientists, but to local community groups across the Carolinas. His talks are filled with vivid, easy-to-follow stories.

“What I enjoy more than anything is going to local civic groups and giving presentations,’’ he said.

The connection between climate change and sea level rise is not hard to understand, Young said.

“A warmer planet does two things to the ocean,’’ Young said. “It warms the ocean and makes it expand. And it melts ice that’s otherwise stored on land, and that water flows into the ocean. Both of those increase the volume of the ocean. The volume of the ocean goes up, sea level goes up, beaches erode. Simple as that.’’

Pilkey, who spent years calling out coastal developers and timid government regulators, said Young has qualities he never had in discussing beach erosion.

“Rob is a smoother guy than I am,’’ Pilkey said. “He is not totally idealistic. He is quite practical.”

SC connections

Young, who said he grew up “digging clams” on the Chesapeake Bay, has strong ties to South Carolina, a state where his shoreline study center has conducted plenty of research.

Young’s wife, Leigh Anne, has family from Ware Shoals, a tiny town in South Carolina’s Upstate, and from Charleston. His father-in-law lived in Charleston before moving to North Carolina. Young spent summers as a child with his older sister in Aynor, a tiny community on U.S. 501 west of Myrtle Beach. He also attended Boy Scout camp in the Pee Dee.

“You look at our minivan we drive around and it has a Palmetto tree and moon on the back of it,’’ he said with a smile, referring to a sticker with the symbols of South Carolina’s state flag.

Young said he does as much work assessing conditions on South Carolina beaches as he does in North Carolina or any other place.

Among other things, his center has regularly kept tabs on beach erosion at Hunting Island State Park, studied encroaching development and renourishment at Folly Beach, spoken out against building seawalls and rock groins at Debordieu Beach, and testified against development of Captain Sam’s Spit on Kiawah Island.

He also has served on a coastal Blue Ribbon panel that recommended tightening the state’s beach laws, including a ban on allowing development farther out onto the beach after renourishment projects. Young was among the most vocal boosters of restricting new development when taxpayer-funded renourishment temporarily widens beaches. The Legislature approved the ban in 2016.

In addition, he and Pilkey have co-authored numerous books on coastal erosion and sea level rise, prominently featuring examples of the problem in South Carolina.

Young’s work draws praise from his co-workers and environmentalists in South Carolina, who say his expertise is vital in fighting unwise beach projects. But Young also has detractors.

Some of those are property owners and politicians, who say people on the oceanfront should have a right to build seawalls or rock groins to protect their homes from the ocean, even as sea levels rise. Seawalls and groins can worsen beach erosion, but are effective at protecting buildings in some places.

Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis, who served with Young on the South Carolina Blue Ribbon panel, said he and Young have had major disagreements over the idea of moving development away from beaches.

“He has written a number of articles, with Orrin Pilkey,’’ Otis said. “Let’s put it this way: I tend to disagree with their core concept.’’

In a letter to a coastal newspaper last summer, Debordieu Beach property owner James Christian ripped Young over his criticism of federally funded renourishment projects. Debordieu, a private gated community with an eroding beach, has in recent years pumped sand, at its own expense, on the shore. Debordieu also has rebuilt a seawall in an effort to protect homes.

Christian’s letters said engineers who have helped protect the Netherlands from the sea “are happy that a mountain college of North Carolina is not studying their coastline.’’

Mountain high

So how did Young, an Army brat who has a doctorate from Duke, wind up running a coastal research and policy center high in the mountains of North Carolina?

It was a winding path, he said. After studying under Pilkey at Duke, Young took a job as a geology professor at Western Carolina, a picturesque university of about 10,000 students 52 miles west of Asheville. He and his family liked the Cullowhee area for its scenery and small-town feel.

Then, he learned about 12 years ago that Pilkey would be retiring as director of the developed shoreline center at Duke. Pilkey asked Young if he would be interested in running the program. But ultimately, Young wasn’t interested in leaving Cullowhee, where he and his wife were raising their children.

A university official he knows then suggested moving the center to Western Carolina from Duke, which Pilkey thought was a good idea – and administrators at both schools agreed on the plan.

Today, the developed shoreline center has six full-time employees and operates on a budget of about $500,000 annually. Since moving to Cullowhee, the center has won more than $8 million in competitive research grants for scientific projects, Young said.

“We sort of rebuilt from scratch,’’ Young said. “Now, the center is bigger than it has ever been.’’

The center has a lot going on these days. In addition to developing a method to study how sea level rise and storms will affect structures in national parks, Young and his group of researchers maintain a wide variety of data, such as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studies on beach erosion.

They also keep a comprehensive database on beach renourishment projects, as well as a searchable storm surge database. The latter has every storm surge measurement ever made in the United States. Aside from coastal projects, the center has developed an expertise on river cane found in the Carolina mountains. And the center’s ground-penetrating radar, used in beach research projects, is sometimes borrowed by local police departments to search for dead bodies, Young said.

Young is particularly excited that the center will move into a new building at Western Carolina in the near future.

Many people might question how a coastal research center could exist in the mountains, more than 300 miles from the closest seashore. But much of the center’s field work is done at beaches across the Southeast and the nation, so it doesn’t matter where the actual offices are located, he said. Young notes that the Atlanta airport is just a few hours away.

He concedes, however, that working from the mountains insulates him from criticism he might encounter from irate beachfront property owners upset about Young’s stances against building close to the shore.

“We don’t run into people in the coffee shop that we’ve hacked off,’’ he said. “Our local legislators aren’t mad at us for anything we’ve said or done, which might not be the case if we were at UNC-Wilmington or Coastal Carolina University.’’