Audiences who saw the recent movie Nights in Rodanthe were surely charmed by the oceanfront house that served as the setting for Richard Gere and Diane Lane’s romance. 

Although the story—two unhappy people help each other overcome the storms of their personal lives in a quaint inn amid a raging storm outside—is a work of fiction, the Hatteras Island, N.C., house is very real.  So too are the threats it and other coastal structures face from the natural and human-influced forces of climate change—threats that don’t lend themselves to Hollywood-style happy endings.

Known as “Serendipity,” the privately owned rental cottage stands at the north end of the real-life village of Rodanthe in a subdivision that urges prospective buyers to “Dare the Dream the Impossible Dream.”  It’s distinctive turret is a longtime landmark for visitors making their way to the barrier island’s beaches, fishing spots, and wind-sports areas. 

Long before Serendipity became a movie star, some friends and I spent two Memorial Day weeks there in the mid-1990s.  Its quirky interior (too confined for a movie; those scenes were shot elsewhere) was complimented by three levels of decks and a private boardwalk that led to an expansive beach 100 feet away on the other side of a grassy sand dune. 

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Today, however, the dune and boardwalk are memories. Waves regularly wash to within a few feet of Serendipity’s wooden pilings and, during storms, wash straight through to Route 12, Hatteras Island’s only major roadway.  The house has been kept off the rental market for the last few years, and was condemned in early 2008 due to the effects of overwash in its septic system.

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That Serendipity is on the precipice becoming another casualty of the Atlantic is not surprising, given its location near the site of an inlet that once separated Hatteras Island from what is now the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Storms and constant wave pounding have shaped and reshaped the Outer Banks for centuries, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that these natural forces are being amplified, at least to some extent, by climate change.

It was the rapid loss of approximately 1,500 feet of shorline during the 20th Century that forced the 1999 relocation of the historic Hatteras Island lighthouse, approximately 30 miles down the beach from Serendipity.  Dozens of oceanfront homes up and down the Outer Banks have simply crumbled into the surf over the years, with their more modern replacements erected just a few feet away. 

All this makes for dramatic video whenever a storm occurs, but the economic and environmental effects are permanent.  And the threat appears to be accelerating, according to recent studies that project  sea levels along the East Coast could rise anywhere from seven to 25 additional inches over the next century.

Only time will tell whether these dire predictions are true. But coastal states can’t afford to take chances. The flooding and erosion caused by even a miniscule increase in sea levels would be exacerbated by a hurricane or nor’easter, particularly a slow-moving one. The potential costs to vulnerable areas and structures—from vacation houses to ports and other critical infrastructure—are staggering.  Opinions differ as to effectiveness of remedial coastal engineering measures such as bulkheads, groins and beach nourishment in these circumstances, but they too would carry a high price tag for what could prove to be only temporary protection.

Meanwhile, Serendipity maintains its vigil, seemingly oblivious to the gradually encroaching waves. Its caretaker told me during a recent visit that the foundation is sound (he claims to have been inside during 130-mph winds and not felt the slightest movement), and the only hurdle to reopening the house to renters presumably eager to have their own Nights in Rodanthe experience is permit approval for a new septic system.

But given the dramatic changes of the past decade, and those forecast to come, it’s hard to image Serendipity’s having a long-term future outside of DVD copies of the movie. The East Coast’s shoreline, like fame, is surely fleeting.