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A Guide to Understanding Mathematical Models Used to Predict Beach Behavior, For Those Who Had a Hard Time With Algebra

” … Nature is so complex, it is inevitable that models must be based on simplifying assumptions.”—Dr. Orrin H. Pilkey, Professor Emeritus, Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment. Photograph: © SAF – Coastal Care

By Orrin H. Pilkey

Many of you may have read environmental impact statements or engineering design documents or have attended public hearings about plans to engineer beaches. You suspect that the plan is flawed but you find yourself up against a brick wall in the form of a mathematical model, said to be sophisticated and state-of-the-art. You are not the only one with this problem. Even if the math is not beyond you, the models are usually impenetrable to all but professionals.

Over the last 2 decades or so, my colleagues and I have been evaluating mathematical models concerned with beach processes because we perceived a very poor record of accuracy in their application to the real world. We have appraised the models, not by looking at the mathematics but by evaluating individual parameters in the equations. For example, how do you characterize wave height, longshore current sand transport, and storm impacts over the next decade or two in order to put them in the models? It’s a challenge, an impossible challenge. (Pilkey, O.H., 2000. What You Know Can Hurt You: Predicting the Behavior of Nourished Beaches: Prediction, Island Press)

Broadly defined, two types of models are used in the study of beaches and other earth surface processes. Qualitative models, also called explanatory models, answer the questions how, why and what if? For example, what if we build a groin at this location? Why do gravel nourished beaches disappear slower than sand beaches? Accuracy is not necessarily expected, as order of magnitude, directional or explanatory answers are sought. These can be very useful mathematical models.

Quantitative models, also known as predictive models, answer the questions when, where and how much? How long will a replenished beach last? What is the net longshore transport volume on this beach? With these models, a number with a significant degree of accuracy is expected. These are the bad ones!

Quantitative mathematical models are widely used to predict the behavior of beaches, especially for coastal engineering purposes. Questions asked in this modeling practice involve future sea-level-rise rates, effect of sea level rise on erosion rates, future shoreline erosion rates, environmental impact of seawalls, groins and breakwaters, life spans of replenished beaches, impacts of dredging, and impacts of navigation channels and a lot more.

Three major problems work against good mathematical modeling for beaches: storms, politics and engineers.

  • All earth surface processes have extreme events, but oceanic storms tend to be very frequent and usually are the dominant force behind beach processes. How can you put storms in a beach model? Storms are complex and their future impact depends upon the direction, intensity, duration, location, frequency, and the state of the beach.
  • Politics plays a role because influential people build structures right next to beaches, and local politics tends to favor the preservation of those buildings over preservation of beaches. In addition, in the US the Army Corps of Engineers must play heavy politics in beach management because they are required to please the Congress. The agency cannot survive without projects.
  • The third conundrum is that coastal engineers have a job to do and will “bend” things a lot to get the job done. Consulting coastal engineers have a strong tendency to find the “truth” according to their clients’ needs, in order to get that job done. Consultants who don’t play ball are soon out of work.

Calibration and verification

One common approach used to validate (prove their validity) mathematical models is calibration and verification. In this process, the model is used to “predict” an already known event by adjusting various parameters to make sure the model equation comes up with the correct answer. Then the adjusted model is verified by “predicting” a second-known sequence of events over a different time frame. If the model comes up with the correct answer in this second application of the model, it is considered to be verified. For example, in the calibration process, one might tweak the model to hind-cast erosion rates between 1950 and 1970 and in the verification process, the calibrated model could be used to hind-cast the erosion rates between 1970 and 1990.

As pointed out by geologist Naomi Oreskes, verification is never possible because it assumes that the same processes occur in the second time frame as occurred in the first time frame. Calibration-verification is a myth, but it is widely used to “prove” a model’s validity.

“… Three major problems work against good mathematical modeling for beaches: storms, politics and engineers. ”
— Orrin Pilkey

There are many parameters responsible for the behavior of beaches, but for practical reasons, only a few can be used in the equations that are supposed to describe beach events. Shown in the table below are many of the parameters that have been noted in the geologic literature to affect longshore sand transport in the surf zone. Parameters with asterisks are those that are used in the widely used CERC (Coastal Engineering Research Center) equation and its variants, to determine sand transport in the surf zone. As is apparent from the table, only a small fraction of the known processes that affect sand transport are used in the equation. So if the equation is calibrated for a given time period, there is a strong likelihood that other processes that weren’t important in the first time period would be important in the second. For example, in the calibration period, there may be a shore-parallel storm wind impact on the beach, creating a large volume of sand transport, but the same unusual event may not occur during the verification period.

This table basically demonstrates the absurdity of mathematical modeling of beaches. (Thieler, E.R., et al., 2000. The Use of Mathematical Models to Predict Beach Behavior for U.S. Coastal Engineering: A Critical Review. JCR 16(1):48-70. PAGE 4)


  • Bed Liquefaction
  • *Wave Height
  • *Wave Period
  • *Angle Of Wave Approach
  • Storms
  • *Shape Of The Shoreface
  • Shoreface Shape Feedback
  • *Grain Size
  • Underlying Geology
  • *Water Depth


  • Offshore Bars
  • Wave Current Interactions
  • Wave Setup
  • Wave Energy Loss- Friction
  • Seaward Sand Transport – Waves
  • Seaward Sand Transport – Currents
  • Sand Loss Or Gain From Wind
  • Sand Loss – Overwash
  • Type Of Coast
  • Sediment Supply
  • Engineering Structures
  • Beach Nourishment
  • Beach Rock
  • Nearshore Winds
  • Shell Pavements
  • Bedforms, pp. 131 – 132 Useless Arithmetic
  • Bottom Roughness


  • Storm Surges
  • Tidal Range
  • Tidal Currents
  • Offshore Coastal Currents
  • Sea Water Infiltration
  • Wave Types
  • *Wave Breaking Parameters
  • Wave Reflection
  • Wind Impact on Nearshore Currents
  • Infra-gravity Waves
  • Wave Reformation (After Breaking)
  • Water Temperature
  • Sediment Sorting
  • Beach Stratigraphy
  • Shape Of Gravel and Larger Clasts
  • *Sand Specific Gravity
  • Beach Sand Pore Pressure
  • Organic Mats
  • Offshore Turbidity Flows
  • Organisms Boring/Burrowing
  • Rip Currents
  • Storm Surge Ebb

Model simplification

There are several major problems with the equations used in earth surface models. First and foremost is model simplification. Because nature is so complex, it is inevitable that models must be based on simplifying assumptions. However, some of the beach-model assumptions are too weak to even come close to reality or to provide an answer accurate enough for stated model purposes. One example is the oft-applied assumption that one model fits all beaches. Or the assumption that all waves are monochromatic (the same wavelength) and come from the same direction.These assumptions are clearly not true, as anyone who hangs out on beaches knows. And when you pile simplification upon simplification, the overall model weaknesses are only intensified.

The Embarrassment Test

I believe that a measure of the reasonableness of assumptions in models is the embarrassment test. If an assumption would be embarrassing to state out loud before a group of professionals, then it’s not likely that the model will provide accurate predictions. Embarrassing statements include:

  • Only waves transport sand; wind-formed currents and tidal forces don’t matter.
  • Longshore currents transport the same amount of sand each year on a given beach.
  • The average of the highest 1/3 of waves represents the average height of waves that strike a beach.
  • Grain size determines the slope of the shoreface (i.e., the steep inner continental shelf down to a depth of 10 m or so).
  • The slope of the shoreface determines the erosion rate for given sea level rise conditions.

Weak field data

Another problem is questionable field data. It is necessary to know the current average wave height for a shoreline reach that is about to be modeled.The assumption is made that future wave heights will be very similar to current wave heights. Modeling the surf zone wave height is accomplished by using past weather records to determine deep-water wave heights and using a mathematical model to “bring in the waves” to the beach.

“… Because nature is so complex, it is inevitable that models must be based on simplifying assumptions.”
— Orrin Pilkey

But preliminary studies by Rob Young and others using both deep water and surf zone wave buoys have shown (unpublished at this point) that this method may result in too-large wave heights and sometimes wrong directions of sand transport on beaches. The irony is that no extensive field studies have been carried out to determine the validity of this widely used approach to determining surf-zone wave height. In the same light, there is a paucity of research looking back at previously engineered and modeled beaches to test the veracity of design approaches.

Besides the problem of inaccurate field determination of wave height, the following are fundamental weaknesses in most beach behavior models for characterizing waves. (These are also embarrassing statements.)

  • Future wave conditions on a given beach will be the same as they are at present.
  • Shape of the seafloor near the beach is usually not well known, hence the shoreline wave angle of approach is not certain.
  • Wave height is assumed to be the average of the highest 1/3 of the waves. Averaging wave height reduces the importance of extremes such as storms and long quiet periods.
  • All waves are monochromatic.
  • All waves are assumed to come from the same direction.
  • The effect on waves by friction with the sea floor is ignored.
  • Accurate field measurements of beach sand transport, especially in storm conditions, have not been made, so there is no basis for determining accuracy of modeled numbers.

Why Do We Keep Using Beach Models?

One could ask, “If these models are so bad and have such a poor record of successful prediction, why do we keep using them?” The answer is that their failure is often explained by the excuse that “unusual” or “unexpected” storms caused the inaccurate beach model predictions, and the public blindly accepts this explanation. Probably the reason that beach model failures have never been systematically studied is that storms provide a fig leaf protecting the modelers.

In the end, the question remains: If we knew all of the important model parameters and understood how all of the parameters worked, and also understood all the interactions and feedbacks, could we predict the outcome of natural earth surface processes using mathematical models with sufficient accuracy for engineering purposes? We believe the answer is no.

Monitoring the results

An amazing number of failed coastal engineering projects have been declared to be successful. This is always the result of the project designers’ evaluating their own projects, the foxes guarding the chickens, if you will. Never accept a declaration of success from the foxes, and always make sure projects will be monitored by disinterested parties.

So If Modeling Is No Good, What Can We Do?

A complete reappraisal of beach mathematical modeling is needed. As a substitute, a qualitative appraisal of beach behavior is sometimes possible using expert geological assessment. For example, some idea of the impact of groins or the lifespan of replenished beaches can be gained from experience on nearby beaches. This approach may lack the prestige of projections from models assumed to be sophisticated and state-of-the-art, but it is likely to be a far more realistic assessment.

Questions to ask

The thumbnail sketch of this small document offers a large number of questions that might be asked of modelers if the opportunity is provided. Some critical questions are:

1. How do you know what the wave height in the future will be?
2. Did you take into account future storms? How did you do this? Do you know the frequency, duration and magnitude of future storms?
3. Will a large storm negate the model results?
4. Did you validate the model with the calibration/verification process?
5. Does the design take into account sea level rise?

Photograph: © SAF – Coastal Care

About the author:

Orrin H.Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Earth and Ocean Sciences in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He is co-author with Linda Pilkey-Jarvis of Useless Arithmetic: Why
Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future (2007)
The views expressed are his own.

Rebuilding the Coastline, But at What Cost?

Aerial pictures of Mantoloking, New Jersey’s coast, after superstorm Sandy devastated the area. Photo courtesy of: © Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (PSDS) / WCU


Nearly seven months after Hurricane Sandy decimated the northeastern coastline, destroying houses and infrastructure and dumping 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage into rivers, bays, canals and even some streets, coastal communities have been racing against the clock to prepare for Memorial Day.

“My fear is that the environmental damage from Hurricane Sandy is going to be long-term and will result more from our response than from the storm itself,” said Robert S. Young, head of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University…

Read Full Article, The New York Times

American Coasts, Past and Future, by John R. Gillis

Foreharbor, Gotts Island, Watercolor by © John R. Gillis.

By © John R. Gillis,

America had shores long before it had an interior. Its western edge was first colonized by Asian migrants arriving by foot. The second colonization was by ship, this time from the east. But the latest and most transformative colonization comes not by sea but from land, from the interior. It threatens not only to obliterate the nature of the shore but to obscure its history. John Cheever remarked that in New England we now have “a second coast…of gift and antique shops…” John McKinney, who knows the California coast as well as anyone, has remarked that on its boutique waterfronts it is impossible to see the “shores for the stores.” A man-made coast now overlays nature’s shore, threatening not only the natural environment, but the built environment itself.

Shores and coasts have distinct histories. Long before there were coasts, there were shores. Coasts arrived quite late in human geography. The term coastline did not appear until the eighteenth century. Yet, today Kenneth White notes that “looking at a globe, what strikes the eye most are coastlines,” echoing Ralph Waldow Emerson’s observation that “the point of greatest interest is the place where land and water meet.” Coasts are a feature of modernity. They reflect a desire for order, rationality, and mastery over nature. They belong to the era some want to call the anthropocene, a world in which everything, including nature, is subject to human design. Coasts promise order and predictability, not just for the mariner seeking safe harbor but for the landlubber keen on fixing the line between land and water, banishing age-old fears evoked by the sea. Today, however, coasts are evidently failing in that purpose. The very thing that was supposed to bring order to what Rachel Carson calls that “elusive and indefinable boundary” of the shore is evidently the cause of ever greater chaos. To understand this paradox it is important to understand the history of how shores became coasts.

Shores and coasts have distinct histories… Coasts are a feature of modernity. They reflect a desire for order, rationality, and mastery over nature.
John R. Gillis.

The Shore: Original Home of Mankind
Humans have had a very long, though largely unrecorded, history of living not only on but with the sea. It began roughly 165,000 years ago, when, due to unfavorable climatic conditions inland, Africans came down to the sea at the southern tip of their continent. There they discovered an ecotone where two ecosystems, one of water, the other of land, intersected, offering those who crossed the tideline riches far greater than found inland. The place that Carl Sauer later called the first home of humankind, Homo sapiens found a place to “eat, settle, increase, and learn.” In time they became what ecologists call an edge species, adept at exploiting both sea and land.

When Africans eventually exited the continent they did so by coastal migration, eventually settling the entire globe apart from Antarctica. Moving alongshore rather than inland, humans remained shore huggers until the nineteenth century, when the interiors of all the continents were finally settled. It was at the shore that they developed those qualities, including tool and symbol making, which gave Homo sapiens the distinctive species-being which advantages us over all other hominids. As Rowan Jacobsen has argued “we are made for – and made by – that thin world where land meets sea.”

The shore was also the initial home of Europeans, first in the Mediterranean and later on the edge of northwestern Europe, where people who arrived as mobile hunter-gatherers made their way alongshore in pursuit of their prey, eventually settling estuaries and moving inland along rivers. The Vikings thought they were sailing around the edge of a great north sea bay when they initially island hopped from Iceland to Greenland and then to Newfoundland. They did not know that they had crossed the Atlantic because in their minds it did not exist as a space between the old and new worlds. Later, Europeans who followed Columbus recognized that they had sailed across rather than around a sea, but, apart from the Spanish, who plunged inland in search of mineral riches, most came as fishers, hunters, and traders, remaining coasters rather than inlanders. The Native Americans they encountered on this continent’s edges shared with them their transient character, also moving alongshore to fish, hunt, and trade. For the first hundred years of contact, these peoples, sharing common environmental and aquatic values, proved quite compatible.

American history is usually told as a story of westward movement, from sea to shining sea, when, in fact, until the mid-nineteenth century it was more maritime than territorial. It will be remembered that Columbus set sail not with intention of finding a new world, but reaching an old one. His goal was passage to India, and he, and all those who followed, were frustrated to find a continental landmass blocking their way. Until the nineteenth century, explorers kept the hope alive that the shores they encountered were those of islands they might sail around them to reach the fabled East. The vision of an archipelagic America did not die easily, for until the eighteenth century the whole world was conceived of as islands. The notion of continents had emerged in the 16th century, but was not naturalized until the nineteenth century when Americans came to see themselves as continental. The Europeans who explored North America were island and shore peoples who viewed the world in archipelagic terms. Here they encountered peoples with the same metageography. Natives of Virginia informed Captain John Smith that the world was “flat and round like a trencher, and themselves at the midst.” The English, French, and Dutch empires were all seaborne and archipelagic. The English had been island hopping, first to Ireland and then across the Atlantic since the 15th century. And until the mid-seventeenth century, the biggest prize continued to lie offshore, in fish-rich waters rather than on land as such.

North America was initially known to Europeans entirely from the sea. The interior remained terra incognita. While the discovery of shores was assumed to carry with it a claim to the hinterland, early explorers were less interested in possession of land than passage around it. In a map of 1651, Virginia is shown to be insular, with Sir Drake’s New Albion (California) just beyond its western edge, giving easy access to the “The Sea of China and the Indies.” In one of the first sermons preached in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Robert Cushman gloried in the fact that it too appeared to be an island with access to the Far East on its western shore. At first, that which lay inland held little interest. One of the first things young Francis Billington did when he disembarked from the Mayflower was to climb a tall tree with a westward view, reporting “a great sea, as he thought.” It turned out to be only a pond, which even today is called the Billington Sea.

Bicoastal America
Initially, what was to become the United States belonged more to the sea than to land. As late as 1837, Alexis de Tocqueville was convinced that its destiny was marine rather than continental. Apart from the Spanish, Europeans turned their backs on the continent. Water, and the fish and furs it provided, was their greatest resource. It also connected them not only to their homelands but to one another. The shore and its islands was North America’s first frontier. It was a zone rather than a line, an ecotone constituted of both land and water with its own distinctive economy and culture. Explored and charted from the sea, shores were, as Rachel Carson would later describe them, “an elusive and indefinable boundary.” They were waterlands, inhabited by water peoples, both Native and European, and connected to the interior by rivers. In an era when water provided the quickest and most efficient travel, shore and riverine frontiers were the most coveted and contested geographies. Contrary to the standard histories organized around settlement and westward movement, the first North American Europeans came with no territorial imperative, no manifest destiny. Like the fish and animals they came in search of, they never stayed in one place very long. The English, wrote Thoreau, were like sailors “who land for but a day.” The French and Dutch were equally peripatetic, always on the move alongshore, rather than cross country, “down east” rather than “out west.”

If our coasts are to have a sustainable future, we need to provide them with a intelligible past, one that acknowledges the fact that the shore was the first home of humankind.
John R. Gillis.

Neither the east nor the west coasts were initially conceived of as the edge of land but as a unique space, a frontier, constantly moving both landward and seaward. Initially, shores remained placeless places, temporary camps for fishermen and traders, whose dwellings were makeshift and portable, allowing periodic retreat when winter came or storms threatened. Like native shore dwellers, Europeans initially used the shores lightly. By the mid-seventeenth century, shores were beginning to be settled by a hybrid population of farmer-fishers, but these were still as much oriented to sea as to land. For such amphibious peoples, the coast was not a line, not an edge or a barrier but a place of transit and circulation.

What was to become this country began as a gaggle of coastal enclaves, tied together by the sea. When Virginia and Massachusetts colonists finally pushed inland in the early seventeenth century, their settlements were linked more by water than land, still tied more closely to other shores around the Atlantic rim than to their own hinterlands. The first American cities were all sea or river ports. Virginia survived only when it discovered a viable export crop, tobacco, and a labor supply, African slaves, that tied it ever more firmly to the sea. Puritan farmers, lacking an export crop, invested heavily in the fisheries as a crucial source of income to pay for their imports from England. To do so, they imported a body of West Country fishermen, who constituted a coastal society quite distinct culturally as well as economically from the agrarian Puritans. As Samuel Eliot Morison put it: “God performed no miracle on the New England soil. He gave the sea.”

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the economic and political strength of the United States was bicoastal rather than interior in character. It became a continental power not because of its overland prowess, but because of its maritime capacities. Like its eastern counterpart, the western shore was explored and settled by water. And it was the search for safe harbors rather than arable lands that justified the possession of Oregon and California. The western shore was first prized as giving access to the Pacific and for a very long time it would remain more important as a way station than a place of permanent settlement.

Thus, it was by sea, not land, that California and the rest of the western shore was populated. Chinese fishermen felt at home on the shores of San Francisco Bay, while Boston merchants made Monterey and later Honolulu into little Bostons. Shore societies have always been diasporic and cosmopolitan in nature. Belonging exclusively neither to land nor sea, they are more open and permeable than the interiors. Shore people are defined more by the routes they traveled than by their roots in a particular place, one of the reasons that for centuries they have been seen as somewhat alien by inlanders.

Hardening Land’s Edge
For most of America’s history its shores had constituted a borderland rather than a border. Once the natives of this place came to see themselves as a nation, contained within fixed lines, they declared the shores the most natural of all borders. In effect, they set about transformly the formly porous shores into impenetrable coasts, as all the other great nations of the world were doing. They fortified harbors and
established fixed fixed points of immigration and quarantine, transforming what had been relatively open frontiers into hard edges of the nation. By the end of the nineteenth century the United States had defined itself as a continental nation that stretched “from sea to shining sea.” Having now become the hard edge of the land, coasts took on a very different meaning. Coastal communities lost their quasi-autonomous quality, becoming fully continental for the first time. American history and geography became landlocked. By the end of the nineteenth century, Plymouth Rock, which had been removed from the shore in the early eighteenth century and practically forgotten, was reinstalled as an icon of national origins. Now that time’s arrow moved east to west, the east coast became associated with the past and the west coast with the future, graced by what Jonathan Raban has called the “end-of-the-world State of California.”

In the period roughly 1850-1970, America turned away from the sea, transforming its shores into coasts. This was due in part to the industrial revolution, which gave precedence to production over trade as the basis for the nation’s wealth and privileged the great heartland cities. Linked to the interior by road and rail, seaports became more connected to both the deep interior and places around the world, but no longer maintained alongshore connections. Fishing cut its ties with the land and moved ever farther offshore. The coasting trade declined, smaller ports decayed, and coastal and island populations precipitously declined, leaving the shores to be recolonized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by inland folk seeking not employment but leisure, pleasure rather than sustenance.

In the late nineteenth century, hotels and boarding houses encroached on the coast, filling in the gaps left by decaying fishing towns. At first, these attracted only the very wealthy. Eventually the automobile age would bring the shore within reach of a much wider urban and suburban population. At first the surge to the sea was mainly seasonal, but today more and more people are made it a permanent residence, especially in retirement. The urban industrial masses found at the shore a last frontier, a new kind of open space to colonize during weekends and vacations. Henry David Thoreau had declared the sea to be wilderness and
the coast as the last unsullied frontier. The old coastal communities suffered a fate not unlike Native Americans. They were doubly displaced, losing their place on the shore but also becoming in the minds of the newcomers the last vestiges of a lost way of life. Many a fishing village and working waterfront first became a tourist attraction and later a maritime heritage site.

World War II had brought unprecedented militarization of America’s coasts, but in the age of intercontinental bombers and missiles they ceased to be the country’s first line of defense, opening up the shore to civilian uses. The real transformation came in the 1970s with the restructuring of the economy, shifting of industrial production overseas, largely to Asia, and changing America’s function from that of the world’s dominant producer to the globe’s greatest consumer nation. With the advent of the container ship and the supertanker, world trade boomed and the sea took on an importance it had not had since the nineteenth century. But commerce no longer flowed through the old seaports like New York and San Francisco, but through a whole new set of mechanized terminals located elsewhere like Bayonne, Long Beach, and Oakland. The shift to air travel accelerated the decline of the old waterfronts, whose piers quickly rotted and seafaring populations virtually disappeared. Yet, it would not be until the 1980s that the possibilities of this empty space dawned on urban developers. Once it did, cities on the sea would be transformed beyond recognition. Today the sailor towns are gone. Few who live in the new waterfront high-rises have any material connection to water. It is for them entirely a space of leisure, a visual experience. They live on the sea, but have no experience with it, except when storms and tsunamis bring it crashing into their otherwise wholly landed existence.

Coasts of Dreams and Nightmares
For millions who live far from coasts, shores nevertheless occupy a prominent place in their mindscapes. They take up a very large space in the popular imagination, and are now a defining feature of national identity for all Americans, treated as inalienable heritage and precious natural resources to be defended against all enemies, natural as well as human. After Hurricane Camille in 1969 American flags were seen flying everywhere on the Mississippi coast; people responded to the Alaska oil spill as if had happened in their own backyards. Whole inland regions now identify with coasts, which increasingly provide them with a collective identity. Maine touts its Lobster Coast, New Jersey has its Shore, and California is defined by its beaches, with what Kevin Starr calls its Coast of Dreams. People have also become possessive of coasts for personal reasons, associating them with precious childhood memories, youthful vitality, and comfortable old age.

To understand why people now crowd the coasts the way they do, it is necessary to know that we not only live on coasts but by them mentally and emotionally. They are now closely associated with both our desires and our fears. In recent years Americans have come to identify with coasts as with no other geographical feature. They have become fiercely possessive of lighthouses, which have replaced church spires as regional symbols in New England and elsewhere. Lighthouses, which once protected seafarers now demand protection themselves, everywhere threatened by coastal erosion. But when sensible planners suggest they be moved back from the sea, locals denounce this as retreat. Seaside property owners also demand that inland taxpayers protect them from the sea, arguing that they are the trustees of a kind of national commons, even when they refuse access to beaches to their fellow citizens.

Coastal access is everywhere a major issue as the value of shorefront property rises to astronomical levels and those who build on the shore claim it as private property. Fishermen struggle to maintain their shore rights against developers, but so do surfers and divers. For the most part, the struggle over access is driven by reasons other than employment of the traditional kind. Coasts are now a place of consumption rather than production, making it the site of a range of activities – swimming, pleasure sailing, and surfing – that scarcely existed two centuries earlier. But we also need to consider the existential functions of the coast for those who come to the beach to do nothing except to stare out to sea, to be moved by its grandeur and thrilled by its power. Herman Melville was puzzled to observe in mid-nineteenth century Manhattan how many of those who no longer had any contact with the sea, came down to the waterfront on the weekends. He found there “thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries…. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?”

Melville would be astonished at how many more Americans now come down to the sea, not to do, but simply look. To answer Melville’s question, one must consider the place of the sea in American culture, how it features as a final frontier, a replacement for the green fields that have been lost to urban and suburban development. Coasts are America’s favorite horizon, a place to project their dreams, but also to locate their worst nightmares. Close encounters with the coast had always been the mariner’s worst fear, but now the terrors come from the sea itself – hurricanes, shark attacks, and now tsunamis – fears which. Jaws affected not just beach goers, but people throughout the American heartland. Our seafaring nation has become a seafearing one.

Learning to Live with the Sea
Few of our shores are any longer pristine. Natural beaches are rapidly replaced by artificial ones and protective wetlands are long gone. Native species of fish, birds, and animals are hugely endangered, but so to is homo littoralis. Few any longer make their living from the sea and the working waterfront is a rarity. Of the 5,300 miles of Maine’s coastline only about 20 can be described as functioning as a nexus between land and sea. Coves and headlands that were once home to active fishing and clamming communities are now lined with the residences of summer people. When fishing industrialized it concentrated itself in a few large ports. The ancient connection between farming and fishing was severed, and the latest coastal colonists no longer know how to live with the sea.

Earlier generations knew not to build too close to the sea, and, when they did, to erect that kind of temporary housing that could be shifted alongshore or inshore when necessity dictated. The newcomers seek to armor the shore, to seawall it. But this violates the very nature of that ecotonal zone where land and water intermixed. We attempt to pin it down, fix in place, only to discover that is the world’s most recalcitrant geography. “Today a little more may belong to the sea, tomorrow a little less,” wrote Rachel Carson. The Japanese, who have concreted an estimated sixty five percent of their coasts, were not protected from the recent tsunami by their giant seawalls, which actually prevented coastal residents from seeing what was coming. Furthermore, modern harbor construction multiplied the force of the sea surge that wetlands and other natural features would have moderated. The fact that tsunami means “harbor wave” in Japanese suggests the way that by altering the shore humans have had a hand in their own destruction…

To understand why people now crowd the coasts the way they do, it is necessary to know that we not only live on coasts but by them mentally and emotionally. They are now closely associated with both our desires and our fears.
John R. Gillis.

All around the world wetlands have been destroyed with disastrous consequences. Recent events on the Gulf coast show just how dangerous it is when waterworlds are subordinated to territorial interests. Right now it would not be an exaggeration to say that coasts designed to meet landlubbers needs are the greatest single threat to shores. What we witnessed at the time of Sandy was not a natural disaster, but a human one.

If our coasts are to have a sustainable future, we need to provide them with a intelligible past, one that acknowledges the fact that the shore was the first home of humankind. Wet archaeology has recently given us access to a part of our past of which we have been quite ignorant. We need to know much more about
how humans have lived with the sea if we are to cope with this latest episode of climate change. We have become dangerously alienated from nature, but, even more troubling is our alienation from our own human nature, as this evolved at the point where land meets sea.

Around the world, coasts are not only crumbling physically, but the very idea of the coastline is being called into question. Ecologists how challenge the notion that nature conforms to lines. The coastline, what was once seen as the world’s most natural boundary has now been shown to among the most unnatural, a danger to itself but also to the shore and all its creatures, including ourselves. As Zygmunt Bauman has observed, the master metaphor of the twenty first century is no longer fixity but fluidity. As coastal environmentalists like Orrin Pilkey have shown over and over again, efforts seawall the shore have been the major contributor of to erosion. That which was meant to bring order into the world has proved to be a source of disorder.

For a long time we could not see the shore for the coast, but now, in the nick of time, the blinders are off. Scientists are just beginning to understand the dynamics of the land/sea interface, and archaeologists and historians are tracking the divergent histories of shore and coast, showing how they came in confict and suggesting how they might again be reconciled.

While it may not be possible to ever return our shores to something like the condition we found them in during the nineteenth century, I am convinced we can learn to live with them again in a lighter, less self-deluded, descrutive manner. This afternoon I hope I have convined you to think of coast and shore as different things, to recognize how they are in tension, but how the current contradicitions must be faced headon if we are to deal with the coming crisis caused by global warming.

Lecture given at the University of California at Santa Barbara, April 18, 2013; sponsored
by the Department of History and the Center for Cold War Studies and International History.

About the author:
John R. Gillis is Professor History Emeritus at Rutgers University, has taught at Rutgers, Stanford, Princeton, and the University of California at Berkeley, is a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge, and now divides his time between two coasts: Northern California and Maine.

John R. Gillis has authored several books including, Islands of the Mind, A World of their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values, and Commemorations and most recently, “The Human Shore: Seacoasts In History”.

In this latest book “The Human Shore: Seacoasts In History”, published by University of Chicago Press, November 2012, historian John R. Gillis explores the deep history of seacoasts, the original home of humankind.

Denying Sea-Level Rise: How 100 Centimeters Divided The State of North Carolina

Denying sea-level rise:

How 100 centimeters divided the state of North Carolina
By Alexander Glass and Orrin Pilkey.

Originally published in ©, and Earth Magazine p.26, May 2013. All text and image courtesy of © EARTH Magazine; Copyright © 2013 American Geological Institute. All rights reserved.

On the surface, it looks like America is a place where scientists and scientific achievements are held in high regard. The retired space shuttles were welcomed by flag-waving crowds; millions of people watched Curiosity’s nail-biting landing on Mars and James Cameron’s descent into the Mariana Trench.

The discovery of the Higgs boson made front-page headlines and captured the imaginations of a nation. It would seem that America still loves and respects science.

However, just below the surface, there is another America. This America is populated by people who, on economic, political or religious grounds, have chosen to reject the consensus of the global scientific community on various topics.They enjoy the innovative gadgets and technological comforts afforded to us by scientific discoveries, but choose to treat science as a shopping trip to the supermarket, picking some conclusions to accept and others to reject at will. These “merchants of doubt” arbitrarily and inconsistently divide the sciences into “good” and “junk” science depending on their philosophical needs, and work diligently to portray high levels of uncertainty in scientific explanations where little actually exists.

In just the first month and a half of 2013, eight different anti-science bills were introduced in five states. Under the guise of “academic freedom,” these bills would allow or require public school teachers to “critically review” allegedly scientifically controversial explanations, including evolution and global warming. Neither of these theories is controversial within the scientific community. Alas, they are controversial among much of the American public.

A June 2012 Gallup poll showed that 46 percent of Americans deny the reality of human evolution and a mere 39 percent accept evolution in general. According to a January 2013 poll done by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, 84 percent of Americans believe that climate change is either definitely or probably real; however, just 64 percent acknowledge that humans are the underlying cause of rapid recent change. Americans might claim to be supporters of science, but many clearly cling to ideas that are at odds with the best scientific evidence.

Now we can add sea-level rise to the growing list of “controversial” topics. Last year, in North Carolina, the legislature introduced a bill that would have required state agencies to estimate future sea-level rise based only on linear projections of historic sea-level rise, rather than on models and field observations that show the rate can change over time. The legislative response to sea-level rise projections in North Carolina became a highly visible example of the shopping-at-the-supermarket view of science. Subsequent events led to the complete dismissal of scientific input by the state government and the passage of non-science-based sea-level rise legislation, delaying any consideration of sea-level rise for planning purposes in the foreseeable future. By summarizing the events and strategies used by the anti-science proponents in North Carolina, we hope to provide a warning to other states and information for good-science advocates who will likely encounter similar local political opposition to sound climate science in the future.

In just the first month and a half of 2013, eight different anti-science bills were introduced in five states.
Alexander Glass and Orrin Pilkey.

The 100-Centimeter Sea-Level Projection

In 2009, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), a body that controls and regulates coastal development in North Carolina, tasked the 13 members of its advisory Science Panel to “prepare a report, based on a review of the published literature, of the known state of sea-level rise for North Carolina.” The report was also to include a summary of the latest projections of sea level through 2100.

Based on the latest scientific studies done both locally and globally, the Science Panel found that by 2100 a 40-centimeter sea-level rise is certain, 100 centimeters is likely, and 140 centimeters is possible. Not surprisingly, these sea-level rise estimates were consistent with those found by science panels in other states.

The assessment, published in March 2010, stated: “The Science Panel is confident that the [sea-level rise versus time] curves presented constrain the plausible range of sea level by 2100 as accurately as is possible at this time.” The Science Panel did not advocate for any particular response or policy to be enacted. However, they recommended that a 100-centimeter sea-level rise should be adopted as the basis for any future coastal management plan.

The report ignited a firestorm of controversy.

The opposition charge was led by the NC-20, a private group of business and local government individuals from each of the 20 coastal counties in the state. Originally formed to fight proposed insurance rate increases, they quickly adopted the sea-level rise report as their main target. The NC-20 correctly perceived that if regulations for development were based on a 100-centimeter sea-level rise, the cost to developers and homeowners would be enormous.

Fearing that the CRC was about to make the 100-centimeter projection a guideline for future development and long-term policymaking, the NC-20 sprang into action by meeting with members of the CRC and state legislators. Through a flurry of activities ranging from staging public presentations by known climate change deniers, lobbying state and county legislators, and releasing misleading statements to the media, the NC-20 was able to successfully coerce the CRC into rejecting the 100-centimeter projection. At the time, the only good news was that the CRC did not repudiate the entire science report, as the NC-20 had urged. However, this initial struggle over the Science Panel’s report would prove to be only the tip of the iceberg.

An immediate result of the NC-20-created controversy was the halting of the production, by the North Carolina Office of Emergency Management, of federally funded maps of projected coastal storm-surge inundation, assuming higher sea levels in the future. This is alarming because northeastern North Carolina has been recognized by NOAA as one of the three regions in the U.S. that are most susceptible to sea-level rise. North Carolina has coastal plains that slope so gently that a 30-centimeter rise in sea level could push the shoreline back three to six kilometers, rendering it particularly vulnerable to future storm surges. The other two regions with extreme risk from sea-level rise are the Mississippi Delta and South Florida.


House Bill 819

In April 2011, State Representative and real estate broker Pat McElraft and others filed House Bill 819 with the North Carolina legislature. Although initially concerned only with beachfront construction setback laws, the bill morphed into a direct attack against the Science Panel’s recommendations to the CRC. By mid-2012, the bill stipulated that only “historic rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise unless such rates are from statistically significant, peer-reviewed data and are consistent with historic trends.” In other words, the realistic nonlinear sea-level projections provided by the latest scientific understanding of climate change would not be used for policymaking purposes and instead would be replaced with a simple linear projection (roughly equaling a rise of 20 centimeters by 2100).

Scott Huler, a blogger for Scientific American, was the first to characterize the proposed North Carolina legislation as a move to make sea-level rise illegal, a tongue-in-cheek, albeit serious, characterization that quickly achieved national notoriety. Huler eloquently noted that North Carolina’s legislative “inquisitors” would come to be classified along with Galileo’s papal persecutors, as having been on the wrong side of history, and that the bill was akin to basing weather forecasts on what one’s grandfather remembers.

Perhaps the most widely disseminated, satirical, yet erudite, criticism was provided by comedian Stephen Colbert, who waxed that the North Carolina legislature’s move to give in to the NC-20 pressures was a “brilliant solution … if your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying that the result is illegal. Problem solved.”

North Carolina has coastal plains that slope so gently that a 30-centimeter rise in sea level could push the shoreline back three to six kilometers
Alexander Glass and Orrin Pilkey.

The comedic ridicule must have been too much for the North Carolina legislature. The final version of House Bill 819, which became law in August 2012, doesn’t make sea-level rise illegal, nor does it limit sea-level rise to linear projections based on only historical data. Instead, the ratified version of the bill completely ignores the suggestions of the Science Panel altogether, showing that little to nothing in the report was actually considered. The new law requires no consideration of sea-level rise in any planning, and merely asks the Science Panel to prepare a new sea-level rise report and present it to the legislature by 2015. Furthermore, it essentially mandates which conclusions about sea-level rise must be included in the revised report, specifically requiring a “summary of peer-reviewed scientific literature that address[es] the full range of global, regional and North Carolina-specific sea-level change data and hypotheses, including sea-level fall, no movement in sea level, deceleration of sea-level rise, and acceleration of sea-level rise.”

This requirement is alarming. The few papers cited by the NC-20 that claim sea-level rise deceleration, stability or even sea-level fall have been discredited or been found deeply flawed by the scientific community. Indeed, this is the reason why they were not included in the Science Panel’s original assessment. Of course, the exclusion of these dubious papers has been spun by the NC-20 to support their assertion that the Science Panel report was biased and purposefully stripped of opposing views. It seems that the state legislature is now asking for a “book report” of all literature, so that legislators and coastal policymakers get to decide what science is good and what science is bad. This new requirement raises the question of why they have bothered to involve an expert science panel at all.

Populist Science

A figure who features prominently in the NC-20’s case against the CRC’s Science Panel report is John Droz Jr., a retired realtor from New York. Droz holds a master’s degree in solid-state science from Syracuse University (1976); however, he is not recognized as a climate or sea-level rise scientist. He says that he is a scientist who seeks to educate citizens about science. At a public presentation to North Carolina lawmakers in February 2013, Droz said that climate science and associated environmentalism were incompatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition. He has consistently belittled and criticized the existence of a scientific consensus among climate scientists and the efficacy or “absurd credential” of peer review. He has also argued that the scientific method is not followed in climate and sea-level rise projections.

Droz’s presentation style and arguments will be recognizable to anyone who has had even a glancing encounter with creation-science arguments. As is the case with anti-evolutionists, his approach works because it is populist and anti-elitist: qualities that reverberate with many people. The problem is that he’s not just espousing these views in public; he also had the ear of the NC-20 and thus the North Carolina legislature. As a science adviser to the NC-20, Droz produced a 33-page critique of the Science Panel’s report (which was 16 pages) that likely played an important role in swaying both legislators’ and public opinions. There is little substance in Droz’s report that would merit a response. However, his analysis includes enough scientific ornamentation, and his criticisms are backed by such bold and self-assured statements, that they proved convincing to legislators and some members of the public.

This populist approach reappears in the language of the ratified House Bill 819, which requires that the updated Science Panel assessment be made accessible to the general public to “allow submittal of public comments” that must be included in the final report to the legislature. This “give-them-all-the-facts-and-let-the-public-decide” approach resonates with Americans’ sense of democracy and equality. But it’s also a tactic that is common among pseudoscientific movements, from anti-evolutionism to global-warming denial.

When you have a broken pipe, you call a plumber; when the roof leaks, you call a roofer; and when the electricity goes out, you call an electrician. Sea-level rise projection is a scientific conundrum. Shouldn’t we call a scientist to assess it? Why designate a science panel at all when its conclusions are free and open to alteration by anyone at will, no matter their credentials and experience? Of course, we are not saying that the public should not be consulted about policy to be based on the Science Panel’s report, but the science itself and the subsequent policy are different ball games.

The Rising Sea of Anti-Intellectualism

The approach taken by the NC-20 in opposing coastal legislation is bizarre, for sure, but not that surprising. It’s bizarre because the North Carolina scientific community as a whole would surely have supported sea-level rise legislation that minimized property devaluation and rising insurance rates for coastal communities. Planning for 100 centimeters of sea-level rise by 2100 is, after all, a long-term goal, not one that would take effect overnight.

Instead, the NC-20 chose to embrace run-of-the-mill anti-global-warming arguments and cloaked itself with dubious “experts” whose scientific views are at the outermost fringes of climate science. They started a war and won the first battle.

The state legislature, at the time of this writing, is considering reconstituting the Coastal Resources Commission, probably in order to appoint members more in tune with the newly elected legislature’s view of the world. The CRC, in turn, plans to augment the membership of the Science Panel and nominate people with differing opinions. By the most recent decree of North Carolina coastal managers, “sea-level rise” should now be called “sea-level change,” in recognition of the NC-20’s interpretation that what sea level is actually doing is unknown.

If current and past decisions by the North Carolina legislature are indicative of what future sea-level rise policy will look like, North Carolina will drown in the murky and ever-rising waters of pseudoscience.

How the NC-20 Succeeded

The basic motivation of the NC-20 is financial; the group is withholding information about coastal hazards from the public in order to keep area real estate and tourist markets up and running.

None of the NC-20 leadership is qualified in any aspect of climate change science, but they certainly are savvy in the ways of public relations and information spinning. They are quite capable of reading the literature and exaggerating the uncertainties inherent to good science. The following is a summary of the points and strategies employed by the NC-20 in the group’s successful efforts to halt or delay any coastal management response to sea-level rise.

Directed criticism only at the North Carolina Science Panel.
The fact that at least a dozen such panels from as many coastal states came to the same conclusions as North Carolina’s did was ignored. Projections of sea-level rise by 2100 from other panels include Miami-Dade County: 1 to 2 meters; Rhode Island: 1 to 1.5 meters; Maine: 1 meter; Oregon: 1.4 meters; and Puget Sound: 1 meter. These numbers are sea-level rise projections (accompanied by scientific caveats about levels of certainty) for which the various science panels suggest their states should be prepared. To have asserted that all of these studies were wrong would have been a daunting task indeed for the NC-20.

Belittled the scientific rigor of the Science Panel.
The NC-20 portrayed the North Carolina Science Panel as rogue extremists of limited competence, despite the fact that most of the panel members are internationally renowned in their specialties.

Criticized the Science Panel’s report as merely being a literature review.
This is an odd criticism to make when this is indeed what the CRC requested of them. Apparently, the NC-20 would require that the Science Panel members visit Greenland and Antarctica to ascertain if the field results of others showing extensive melting were genuine.

Cherry-picked numbers and experts.
The NC-20 gives strong credence to uncertainties in our understanding of sea-level rise while ignoring the more credible lines of evidence. This approach has allowed the NC-20 to project a sea-level rise of 20 centimeters by 2100. The group heavily relies on the dubious work of Nils-Axel Mörner, former chairman of the now-defunct unit of Paleogeophysics and Geodynamics at the University of Stockholm. Mörner has stated that “sea-level rise is the greatest lie ever told” and has characterized the phenomenon as “the great sea-level humbug.” Mörner argues that changes in sea level are occurring but that there is no global trend, up or down. This makes him unique among scientists.

Accused the Science Panel of a personal political agenda.
The NC-20 stated that the Science Panel members “fully understand that genuine science is a major obstacle to achieving their ends.” The NC-20 characterized the two sides as a handful of CRC-selected scientists (the Science Panel) who are bent on promoting their own personal political agendas versus the NC-20’s “world-class group of experts” on sea-level rise. The NC-20 never explained the Science Panel’s political or economic agenda other than that scientists invented climate change and sea-level rise to assure grant funding.

Claimed that 35 sea-level rise experts agreed with NC-20.
Perhaps two of those 35 could claim some expertise. The others were the usual suspects from among the global climate change denier community.

If current and past decisions by the North Carolina legislature are indicative of what future sea-level rise policy will look like, North Carolina will drown in the murky and ever-rising waters of pseudoscience.
Alexander Glass and Orrin Pilkey.

Argued that there is no scientific consensus on sea-level rise.
Headlines that speak of scientists “proving” or “disproving” various ideas abound. Unfortunately, this absolutist characterization of scientific explanations and findings serves as welcome fodder to those who would wish to obfuscate levels of certainty and agreement within the scientific community. All that anti-science groups have to do is present a few of their own scientists who disagree and they appear to demonstrate that the given explanation is still open to rational debate and not yet proven.

The problem, of course, is that many scientific explanations fall into neither extreme — of proven or unproven — but exhibit various levels of certainty. What is considered a “good and justified explanation” and the level of certainty it enjoys is a matter of consensus within the scientific community. Consensus, however, does not require unanimity. In fact, one can always find someone within the scientific community (or more likely around its fringes) who will vehemently argue against the consensus.

AG and OP
Publication Date:
Sunday, April 21, 2013 – 11:00

About the Authors:

Alexander Glass (Left) and Orrin Pilkey (Right)

Alexander Glass is a lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in earth and ocean sciences at Duke University.

Orrin Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of earth and ocean sciences at Duke. Pilkey is co-author of “The Rising Sea” (2011), “Global Climate Change: A Primer” (2011), “The World’s Beaches : A Global Guide to the Science of the Shoreline” (2011), and several other books.

Neither author was part of the Coastal Resources Commission’s Science Panel, whose report can be found at: dcm2: North Carolina Sea-Level Rise Assessment Report

Post Sandy Coastal Engineering Atrocity at Village of Southampton, In Pictures

Featured, is an example of unsustainable and palliative coastal protection at its worst, on the beach, at the village of Southampton.

Construction of a large rock revetment, certainly one of the largest structure in the entire US designed to protect only one house.

The rocks are the size of cars and average 20-25 tons, which aliment existing concerns about the growth and expanding size of bulkheads and seawalls along the Southampton Shore.

The structure will have long-term, negative impacts on the beach and on the neighboring beaches along the coast. Structures this big will never be removed.

This is a blatant example of brute force coastal protection at its worst, counterintuitively and de facto, going against the necessary sensible adaptation to long-term sea level rise and climate change.

For more information, please contact Robert Young, PhD, PG, Director, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, Western Carolina University

The Benefits Of Inlets Opened During Coastal Storms

Hurricane Irene Opened New Inlets on Hatteras Island. Photograph courtesy of: Rob Young and Andy Coburn, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, Western Carolina University

Open letter from the community of coastal scientists regarding the benefits of inlets opened during coastal storms,

Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (PSDS) / WCU

Inlets are a critical part of natural, coastal processes. Storm-formed island breaches are, in fact, an important aspect of long-term barrier island maintenance. These naturally occurring inlets are often temporary, but while open they transport sand from the nearshore zone into the back-barrier, adding width to the island. Inlets, and their associated sand shoals and flood tidal delta platforms build land and wetlands. This is visible in numerous locations up and down the east coast. The widest portions of the barrier islands are frequently those areas with old inlet locations. This is certainly true for Fire Island, Westhampton Dunes, Assateague Island and significant portions of the North Carolina Outer Banks among many others.

Carefully managing storm-formed inlets is a critical adaptive strategy for preserving barrier islands in response to long-term climate change. Islands that are narrow and sand-poor on the backside are more likely to fragment and “fall apart” in response to rising sea level and future storms. Islands with an inlet formed sand platform on the backside can migrate back, and up onto the flood tidal delta sands, shoals, and marshes. In effect, storm-formed inlets are like beach nourishment projects for the estuarine side of the island, and they can add significant wetland acreage to the back of the island (along with all the values those wetlands provide).

Carefully managing storm-formed inlets is a critical adaptive strategy for preserving barrier islands in response to long-term climate change.

In light of this, inlets should be allowed to remain open wherever possible. Doing so reduces the long-term vulnerability of the barrier island system. Inlets should only be closed in cases where there is a clear need for barrier island continuity (e.g., a critical transportation corridor) or where the inlet is causing immediate and demonstrable harm.

Recently, the North Carolina Department of Transportation elected to allow an inlet that opened during Hurricane Irene to remain open in acknowledgement of these benefits and the likelihood of future breaches. The area is currently proposed to be spanned by a 2-mile long, elevated highway.

Increased storm vulnerability for back barrier water bodies and infrastructure should not simply be assumed, but proven and measured. Any cost benefit analysis for closing the inlet must take into account the benefits that will be provided by increased island width, decreased island vulnerability, and the growth of estuarine wetlands (and the services they provide).

Closing inlets in natural areas, parks, and wilderness areas should require a very, very high burden of proof that the inlet is causing harm. In short, closing storm-formed inlets may seem like the logical response for those managing barrier island shorelines. But doing so ignores the significant benefits these inlets provide and will likely increase the vulnerability of the island and mainland over the long term.

Robert (Rob) S. Young, PhD, PG, Director, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines
Western Carolina University

Please email for relevant references an updated list of signatories:

David M. Bush, PhD, PG, University of West Georgia
Andrew Coburn, Associate Director, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines
Andrew Cooper, PhD, University of Ulster
D. Reide Corbett, PhD, East Carolina University
M. Scott Harris, PhD, College of Charleston
Miles Hayes, PhD, Research Planning, Inc
Duncan Heron, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Duke University
Chester W. Jackson, PhD, Georgia Southern University
Joseph Kelley, PhD, University of Maine
David Mallinson, PhD, East Carolina University
William J. Neal, PhD, Grand Valley State University
Randall W. Parkinson, PhD, PG, RW Parkinson Inc.
Katie McDowell Peek, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines
Leonard Pietrafesa, PhD, North Carolina State University Professor Emeritus
Orrin H. Pilkey, PhD, James B. Duke Professor Emeritus, Duke University
Antonio B. Rodriguez, PhD, University of North Carolina
Stanley Riggs, PhD, PG, Professor Emeritus, East Carolina University
Matthew Stutz, PhD, Meredith College
Arthur Trembanis, PhD, University of Delaware
J.P. Walsh, PhD, East Carolina University
Harold R. Wanless, PhD, University of Miami
John F. Wehmiller, PhD, Professor Emeritus, University of Delaware

The views expressed in this letter should not be interpreted to reflect the views or official endorsement of the institutions employing the signatories.

Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill Fails to Face Coastal Realities

Mantoloking, NJ. Aerial pictures of New Jersey’s coast, after superstorm Sandy devastated the area. Photo courtesy of: © Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (PSDS) / WCU

By Dr. Robert S. Young, Director, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and Professor of Coastal Geology at Western Carolina University

Next week, the U.S. Congress is expected to vote on the bulk of $60 billion in emergency spending to provide for recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Clearly, significant aid is needed to repair the damage left by the storm and to help many people put their lives back together. But the bill before Congress includes provisions authorizing spending that would be fiscally irresponsible and environmentally damaging and would set a very bad precedent as we plan for long-term adaptation to rising sea levels and climate change.

The bill goes far beyond the immediate need for emergency assistance by funding a massive coastal engineering effort that is not based on science or wise planning. As currently proposed, the bill would give the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers roughly $4.5 billion to spend on coastal construction projects related to “flood control and risk reduction.” Most troubling, the bill requires the Corps to attempt to rebuild the New Jersey and New York beaches to their “design profile.” In other words, the Corps will work to put the beaches back exactly as they were before the storm, ignoring the reality of rising sea levels and intensifying storms as the world warms.

This is not emergency disaster relief. It is the development of coastal policy. And that ill-advised policy is this: We will try to hold the precarious shoreline in place and protect property and infrastructure with a major investment of taxpayer dollars in coastal engineering.

The money should be spent on long-term solutions such as buying out owners of high-risk properties.

What’s worse, the Corps need only determine that a project is “cost effective.” Projects do not need to have been previously authorized or reviewed, and environmental impacts need not be addressed. The Sandy bill even authorizes the Corps to spend, without environmental review, roughly $1 billion “to address damages from previous natural disasters” unrelated to Hurricane Sandy.

It may be that we, as a nation, decide that it is worth spending billions of dollars to rebuild this nation’s beaches, but the decision should not be taken quickly, or lightly. Such rebuilding projects will only provide temporary relief from rising sea levels and storms — we will need to spend the money again. And there should be full consideration of the science behind the design of each project and the environmental impacts, which the current bill ignoresinvestment of taxpayer dollars in coastal engineering.

What’s worse, the Corps need only determine that a project is “cost effective.” Projects do not need to have been previously authorized or reviewed, and environmental impacts need not be addressed. The Sandy bill even authorizes the Corps to spend, without environmental review, roughly $1 billion “to address damages from previous natural disasters” unrelated to Hurricane Sandy.

It may be that we, as a nation, decide that it is worth spending billions of dollars to rebuild this nation’s beaches, but the decision should not be taken quickly, or lightly. Such rebuilding projects will only provide temporary relief from rising sea levels and storms — we will need to spend the money again. And there should be full consideration of the science behind the design of each project and the environmental impacts, which the current bill ignores. Coastal experts across the country have implored local and federal leaders to take an enlightened approach to replacing infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Sandy and to look for opportunities to change the footprints of communities in an effort to reduce exposure to the next storm. If we are going to invest federal dollars in reducing property at risk in a community, we should be spending the money on long-term solutions, such as relocating roads and buying out the owners of high-risk properties. There are numerous examples of the federal government moving entire towns out of the floodplain after inland floods, including Vallmeyer, Illinois along the Mississippi River. But because it involves high-priced real estate, relocation has never been considered an option for coastal resort communities.

I am not suggesting that the coast should be abandoned. I am suggesting, however, that federal investment in maintaining obviously vulnerable development be reconsidered.

Federal investment in maintaining obviously vulnerable development should be reconsidered.

One might wonder why these coastal resort communities, located in areas of clear and persistent hazard, would continue to rebuild after complete destruction. This is largely due to the fact that the federal and state governments currently provide multiple incentives to rebuild rather than relocate.

The funds for this rebuilding come largely through the public assistance sections of the 1988 Stafford Act. This is the legislation that created the well-known federal system of emergency response. When the president makes a federal disaster declaration for a county, aid dollars flow in with few strings attached, as clearly evidenced in the current proposed emergency spending bill. A community can repeatedly replace the same infrastructure, such as an oceanfront road. Dauphin Island, Alabama has been hit by storms 10 times in the last 30 years, receiving roughly $80 million from the federal government for an area of around one square mile with only 400 homes.

While private insurers are pulling back from the coastal zone, public insurers are filling the void. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides vulnerable properties access to flood insurance that would not be available in private markets. Last week, Congress passed the first part of the Sandy emergency funding bill, allocating a $9.7-billion increase in the borrowing authority of the NFIP just to meet the insured losses from this storm.

Many states have government-managed pools to keep rates for non-flood property insurance artificially low. The largest insurer of coastal property in Florida is the state, through its Citizen’s Property Insurance Corporation. In places where public funding of health care would be anathema, politicians see little irony in the fact that insurance for coastal investment property is provided by the government.

Finally, federal and state taxpayers have spent billions of dollars over the last four decades pumping up beaches in front of coastal properties and constructing coastal protection projects. In New Jersey alone, approximately $1 billion in public funds have been spent just to preserve beachfront properties — many of them second homes of well-to-do people — and oceanfront infrastructure. The spending for coastal protection in the current Hurricane Sandy bill will make past spending look trivial.

Coastal management by emergency spending has been typical of the federal approach for many years now. But it really shouldn’t be like this. Taxpayers should not be subsidizing the risk of developing in areas of known hazard, and we clearly shouldn’t be using federal funds to rebuild homes and protect beaches in areas we know will be lost again.

Taxpayers should not be subsidizing the risk of developing in areas of known hazard.

At the very least, we need to allow market forces to set insurance rates and property values without the current government subsidy and risk underwriting.

Including spending on future shore protection projects in an emergency spending bill is the wrong approach. Developing a long-term plan for reducing storm and flood risk along a heavily developed shoreline requires time, good science, and a thorough evaluation of the viability of each project. This bill opens the door to a rush of bad decisions with little to no accountability.

The federal government has made an effort to reduce wasteful spending on coastal protection projects during both the Bush and Obama administrations. This one bill will undo 10 years of restraint.

On a positive note, the bill includes $500,000 to evaluate the degree to which pre-existing beach and dune nourishment projects protected property during Hurricane Sandy. The media has widely reported the anecdotal evidence that communities with engineered beaches fared better during the storm than others. But this assertion has not been tested by any systematic, scientific evaluation. Nor does a project’s success at reducing property damage automatically imply that the project is cost-effective for federal taxpayers. So here the Senate bill clearly recognizes the need to understand the efficacy of these very expensive federal projects, but authorizes the spending of billions of dollars before we even get the answers.

The way we as a nation begin to address the long-term vulnerability and viability of coastal resort communities like those along the Jersey Shore deserves a real debate, not a quick, emotional response. The shore protection projects proposed in this emergency bill are temporary fixes. Over the long run, the federal government will not be able to hold every beach in America in place as sea levels continue to rise and storms batter our beaches. The costs are tremendous and are only going up.

If we are going to authorize the spending of $4.5 billion for shore protection, it should be done in a way that is fair, has a national perspective, uses the best science to decide which projects are likely to last and provide the most benefit with the least environmental harm, and assesses the cumulative impacts of reengineering hundreds of miles of coast.

Louisiana has created a model for how this might work. The state’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan evaluated hundreds of potential coastal restoration and protection projects within a framework that was scientific and unbiased. Projects were then prioritized based on the potential outcomes and benefits, not on expediency or politics. There were winners and losers, but the process was fair and organized. Most importantly, there was a recognition that the map of southern Louisiana will look differently 50 years from now than it does today. We can’t protect everyone and everything in situ.

Originally Published in, Yale E 360

We Need to Retreat From the Beach

Aerial pictures of North Carolina’s coast, after superstorm Sandy devastated the area. Photo courtesy of: © Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (PSDS) / WCU

By Orrin H. Pilkey, James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology, Duke University
Co-Author with Rob Young of The Rising Sea (Island Press), and mod

As ocean waters warm, the Northeast is likely to face more Sandy-like storms. And as sea levels continue to rise, the surges of these future storms will be higher and even more deadly. We can’t stop these powerful storms. But we can reduce the deaths and damage they cause.

Hurricane Sandy’s immense power, which destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, actually pushed the footprints of the barrier islands along the South Shore of Long Island and the Jersey Shore landward as the storm carried precious beach sand out to deep waters or swept it across the islands. This process of barrier-island migration toward the mainland has gone on for 10,000 years.

Yet there is already a push to rebuild homes close to the beach and bring back the shorelines to where they were. The federal government encourages this: there will be billions available to replace roads, pipelines and other infrastructure and to clean up storm debris, provide security and emergency housing. Claims to the National Flood Insurance Program could reach $7 billion. And the Army Corps of Engineers will be ready to mobilize its sand-pumping dredges, dump trucks and bulldozers to rebuild beaches washed away time and again.

But this “let’s come back stronger and better” attitude, though empowering, is the wrong approach to the increasing hazard of living close to the rising sea. Disaster will strike again. We should not simply replace all lost property and infrastructure. Instead, we need to take account of rising sea levels, intensifying storms and continuing shoreline erosion.

… We should not simply replace all lost property and infrastructure. Instead, we need to take account of rising sea levels, intensifying storms and continuing shoreline erosion.”
—Orrin H. Pilkey

I understand the temptation to rebuild. My parents’ retirement home, built at 13 feet above sea level, five blocks from the shoreline in Waveland, Miss., was flooded to the ceiling during Hurricane Camille in 1969. They rebuilt it, but the house was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (They had died by then.) Even so, rebuilding continued in Waveland. A year after Katrina, one empty Waveland beachfront lot, on which successive houses had been wiped away by Hurricanes Camille and Katrina, was for sale for $800,000.

That is madness. We should strongly discourage the reconstruction of destroyed or badly damaged beachfront homes in New Jersey and New York. Some very valuable property will have to be abandoned to make the community less vulnerable to storm surges. This is tough medicine, to be sure, and taxpayers may be forced to compensate homeowners. But it should save taxpayers money in the long run by ending this cycle of repairing or rebuilding properties in the path of future storms. Surviving buildings and new construction should be elevated on pilings at least two feet above the 100-year flood level to allow future storm overwash to flow underneath. Some buildings should be moved back from the beach.

Respecting the power of these storms is not new. American Indians who occupied barrier islands during the warm months moved to the mainland during the winter storm season. In the early days of European settlement in North America, some communities restricted building to the bay sides of barrier islands to minimize damage. In Colombia and Nigeria, where some people choose to live next to beaches to reduce exposure to malarial mosquitoes, houses are routinely built to be easily moved.

We should also understand that armoring the shoreline with sea walls will not be successful in holding back major storm surges. As experience in New Jersey and elsewhere has shown, sea walls eventually cause the loss of protective beaches. These beaches can be replaced, but only at enormous cost to taxpayers. The 21-mile stretch of beach between Sandy Hook and Barnegat Inlet in New Jersey was replenished between 1999 and 2001 at a cost of $273 million (in 2011 dollars). Future replenishment will depend on finding suitable sand on the continental shelf, where it is hard to find.

And as sea levels rise, replenishment will be required more often. In Wrightsville Beach, N.C., the beach already has been replenished more than 20 times since 1965, at a cost of nearly $54.3 million (in 2011 dollars). Taxpayers in at least three North Carolina communities — Carteret and Dare Counties and North Topsail Beach — have voted down tax increases to pay for these projects in the last dozen years. The attitude was: we shouldn’t have to pay for the beach. We weren’t the ones irresponsible enough to build next to an eroding shoreline.

This is not the time for a solution based purely on engineering. The Army Corps undoubtedly will be heavily involved. But as New Jersey and New York move forward, officials should seek advice from oceanographers, coastal geologists, coastal and construction engineers and others who understand the future of rising seas and their impact on barrier islands.

We need more resilient development, to be sure. But we also need to begin to retreat from the ocean’s edge.

Aerial pictures of New Jersey’s coast, Mantoloking, after superstorm Sandy devastated the area. Photo courtesy of: © Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (PSDS) / WCU

Originally Published in, The New York Times

The World’s Beaches: A Global Guide To The Science Of The Shoreline
A Book by Orrin H. Pilkey, William J. Neal, James Andrew Graham Cooper And Joseph T. Kelley.

Sandy Reminds Us of Coastal Hazards, by Robert Young

Photo source: ©© Irargerich

By Dr. Robert S. Young, Director, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and Professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University

Hurricane Sandy will almost certainly join the pantheon of “costliest storms in history.”The impacts of the storm have been felt as far inland as Toronto, Ontario and coastal erosion and flooding affected beaches from South Carolina to southern Massachusetts. There has been massive damage to significant segments of the New Jersey and New York coastal infrastructure.

As hard as it may be to think about while people are still being plucked from rooftops, storms like Hurricane Sandy represent an opportunity to change the vulnerability footprint of a coastal community- a chance to reassess the exposure to future storms and long-term sea level rise.

Predicting the likelihood of wind damage 50 miles from the coast is impossible, but we have a far better grasp of coastal flood and erosion hazards. Every coastal community has its hazard hotspots.These are the places that cause local governments multiple headaches. Even small storms cause flooding and erosion and large storms like Hurricane Sandy cause catastrophic property damage.

Despite the recognition of the hazard, we have failed miserably at keeping infrastructure and development out of these highly vulnerable areas. This is largely due to the fact that federal and state governments provide multiple incentives to rebuild, rather than relocate.

The continuing saga of Dauphin Island, Alabama is an instructive example. The west end of Dauphin Island is arguably the most vulnerable shoreline in the United States. It has been impacted by tropical storms ten times since Hurricane Frederic in 1979. This has cost the federal taxpayer approximately $80 Million for an area around 1 square mile with only 400 homes. Access to the island was shut off once again this summer during Hurricane Issac, even though the storm struck hundreds of miles away.

The monies for this rebuilding come largely through the public assistance sections of the 1988 Stafford Act. This is the legislation that created the federal system of emergency response that we are all so familiar with. When the President makes a federal disaster declaration for a county, aid dollars flow in with few strings attached. And, as with Dauphin Island, those dollars are often used to replace the same infrastructure over, and over again.

… As hard as it may be to think about while people are still being plucked from rooftops, storms like Hurricane Sandy represent an opportunity to change the vulnerability footprint of a coastal community…”
—Robert Young

The Federal Flood Insurance Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides vulnerable properties access to flood insurance that would not be available in private markets. Many states have government managed “wind pools” to keep the rates for non-flood property insurance artificially low. The largest insurer of coastal property in the state of Florida is the State of Florida through its Citizen’s Property Insurance Corporation. Private losses not covered by insurance are often written off at tax time, an indirect federal subsidy of risky development.

Finally, federal and state taxpayers have spent billions of dollars over the last four decades pumping up beaches in front of coastal properties (beach nourishment) and constructing coastal protection projects. In New Jersey alone, approximately $1 Billion in public funds have been spent just to keep beaches in front of the state’s investment homes and oceanfront infrastructure.

Even more mind-boggling is the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency treats beach nourishment projects as infrastructure. If a storm washes away your beach, taxpayers will put it back.

In North Carolina, $33 Million has been spent to replace sand from beaches eroded by named storms. In most cases, these communities suffered no other significant property damage, but taxpayers were still on the hook for the sand (and will be again). One of the hidden costs of Hurricane Sandy up and down the east coast will be the federal funds used to put the sand back in front of the houses.

It really shouldn’t be like this.Taxpayers should not be subsidizing the risk of irresponsible development, and we clearly shouldn’t be rebuilding areas of known hazard multiple times. We need to incentivize coastal adaptation to storms and sea level rise. At the very least, we need to allow market forces to set insurance rates and property values without the current government subsidy and risk underwriting.

Let’s take the hardest hit coastal area from Hurricane Sandy- New Jersey and New York. A study released in March 2012 by Ben Strauss and Climate Central listed New York and New Jersey among those states most vulnerable to sea level rise. These shorelines will only become more vulnerable with time, and more costly to maintain.

Hurricane Sandy is a chance to change that calculus. Let’s hope that federal, state, and local governments can come together to rebuild infrastructure in a way that will reduce future vulnerability, and limit taxpayer exposure. Ultimately, let’s hope that government at all levels can finally take the issue seriously.

Every storm like Hurricane Sandy is an opportunity to change the way we have been doing business.

Let’s take it.

Originally Published in, USA Today