Tag Archives: Orrin H. Pilkey

What Harvey means for future storms across the nation; Op Ed By orrin H. Pilkey

Astronaut Randy Bresnik took this photo of Tropical Storm Harvey from the International Space Station on Aug. 28 at 1:27 p.m. CDT. Captions and photo source: NASA


Forewarning about the path and future disastrous evolution of Hurricane Harvey proved to be quite accurate. Hurricane Harvey may be an example of the long-predicted intensification of storms resulting from the warming of the seas.

As in every storm I’ve watched (always from afar), local residents are quoted as saying they are not leaving because they’ve already experienced hurricanes. What Harvey tells us is that experience in past storms is not useful because each hurricane is unique and dramatically different from others. Certainly Harvey is different, not only because it has hung around for days but also because a major city is in the center of the chaos and destruction.

Lessons, however, have been learned from past storms…

Read Full Article; The News & Observer (08-30-2017)

It’s a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly; Guardian UK (08-28-2017)

As the climate warms, we are ‘primed’ for worse storms than Sandy; Science Daily (10-06-2016)
With the climate warming and the sea level rising, conditions are ripe for storms deadlier and more devastating than Sandy that put more people at risk. If damaging storms become more frequent, retreat from areas with mounting repetitive losses will become a topic of discussion…

Hurricane Matthew’s Destructive Storm Surges Hint at New Normal; National Geographic (11-10-2016)
The coastal U.S. is highly vulnerable to rising seas, which are expected to surge in the coming years. Will this storm be a wake-up call?

Sea-Level Rise Poses Hard Choice for Two Neighborhoods: Rebuild or Retreat? Take Part (04-25-2015)

‘Repetitive Loss’ Properties Raise Debate Over Rebuilding After Floods; Hartford Courant (10-13-2015)

How rising seas and coastal storms drowned the U.S. flood insurance program; Yale E360 (04-19-2017)
Sea level rise and more severe storms are overwhelming U.S. coastal communities, causing billions of dollars in damage and essentially bankrupting the federal flood insurance program. Yet rebuilding continues, despite warnings that far more properties will soon be underwater…

After Hurricane Sandy, One Man Tries To Stop The Reconstruction, Outside Magazine (10-09-2013)
Geologist Orrin Pilkey predicted exactly what a storm like Sandy would do to the mid-Atlantic coast and New York City. On a tour of destruction after the deluge, he and David Gessner ponder a troubling question: Why are people rebuilding, as if all this isn’t going to happen again?

Sea Level Rise Will Reshape U.S. Population In All 50 States; Yale E360 (04-19-2017)
Sea level rise could cause mass migrations that will affect not just the United States’ East Coast, but reshape communities deep in the heart of the country, according to new research…

Orrin H. Pilkey: Heading over the coastal cliff in North Carolina; Op Ed

WATCH: “The Beaches Are Moving Video,” featuring Orrin H. Pilkey. A UNC-TV video © University of North Carolina Center for Public Television


In the December 16 issue of Science, an insightful article about sea-level rise argues that there is a good possibility that the increase will exceed six feet by 2100…

Read Full Article, Pilot Online (02-05-2017)

In NC, dangerous delays and delusions on sea-level rise; Op Ed by Orrin H. Pilkey & Keith C. Pilkey; The News & Observer (07-09-2016)

Rethinking Living Shorelines, By Orrin H. Pilkey, Rob Young, Norma Longo, and Andy Coburn;Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines / Western Carolina University, March 1, 2012, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
In response to the detrimental environmental impacts caused by traditional erosion control structures, environmental groups, state and federal resource management agencies, now advocate an approach known as “Living Shorelines”that embraces the use of natural habitat elements such as indigenous vegetation, to stabilize and protect eroding shorelines.

“Retreat from a Rising Sea,” A book by Orrin H. Pilkey, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, and Keith C. Pilkey- ©2016

Nature Confronts Politics in North Carolina; (05-26-2015)
As local politicians underestimate rising sea levels, coastal communities are coming up with their own plans…

The Last Beach, A book by Orrin H. Pilkey And J. Andrew G. Cooper ©-2014
“The Last Beach” is an urgent call to save the world’s beaches while there is still time. The geologists Orrin H. Pilkey and J. Andrew G. Cooper sound the alarm in this frank assessment of our current relationship with beaches and their grim future if we do not change the way we understand and treat our irreplaceable shores.

Top 5 Threats To The World’s Beaches (And A Systemic Solution)

Beach re-nourishment, Waikiki, 2012. Photograph: © SAF


Professors Orrin Pilkey and Andrew Cooper are writing what promises to be an outstanding book.

In The Last Beach (to be published this summer by Duke University Press), they describe the top five threats to beaches around the world. Even a quick overview of these threats suggests a strategy for confronting the degradation and loss of beaches. It’s no surprise that a comprehensive, long-term beach protection strategy requires significant changes to our economic system, a system that has overdeveloped and polluted beaches to the extent that they have become unhealthy places to swim or even play in the sand…

Read Full Article, Countercurrents

Originally published in The Daly News

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.

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 © Earthmagazine.org, 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

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.

Response To Patrick Michaels Editorial

Photo source, the midway journey : ©© Manuel Maqueda

By Orrin Pilkey, Professor Emeritus, Duke University

Patrick Michaels is a long time (and very effective) denier of the importance of global climate change. He provides the ammunition for those who are predisposed to ignoring Mother Earth’s realities. Michaels has written several books and many Op Ed pieces on the subject, like the one in the Oct 1 edition of the Raleigh News and Observer from Raleigh North Carolina.

There is nothing wrong with pointing out uncertainties in the science of global warming and rising sea levels. There are indeed many uncertainties in projecting future changes but one can characterize these in various lights depending upon one’s view of the big picture of the totality of evidence concerning climate change. Michaels and other deniers cherry pick their uncertainties and interpret them in a fashion to belittle climate change and sea level rise.

… The relationship between temperature change and sea level rise is anything but linear.
—Orrin H. Pilkey

I well remember in Michaels book Climate of Extremes (written with Robert Balling) in which they characterize the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) sea level rise prediction of a sea level rise of up to 22 inches as having a caveat. The so called caveat is the expected huge contribution from the melting ices sheets in Antarctica and Greenland which the IPCC believes will be the principle contributors to sea level rise over this century. Michaels and Balling ignored the IPCC’s warnings about the ice sheets. That’s cherry picking.

There are many such “almost true” statements in the Op Ed. For example he says the North Carolina Coastal Resources commission scared everybody by predicting a 38-inch sea level rise by 2100. He neglects to point out that the estimate came from a panel of well qualified scientists and that the estimate is essentially the same as the estimates emanating from at least a dozen science panels from coastal states around the US and other such panels on the international scene.

He notes that here in NC we are adjusting to sea level rise by stabilizing the dunes and building new homes on pilings. He fails to understand that the impact of sea level rise will be retreat of the shorelines. Building dunes and elevating buildings responds to storms – not retreating shorelines. We respond to retreating shorelines with very costly beach nourishment.

He argues that the IPCC projections of temperature “tend to predict a constant rate of warming.” But there are huge tipping points in the future of sea level rise. The relationship between temperature change and sea level rise is anything but linear. For example if some of the glaciers in Antarctica melt to the point they will become unhinged from the bumps on the sea floor they are now attached to, their melting rate will accelerate sharply. As the Arctic Ocean ice cover shrinks more and more every summer, the dark sea water will absorb heat that was once reflected back from the ice cover. This warming of the Arctic will accelerate the melting of permafrost in Siberia, Canada and Alaska as well as the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Michaels is focused on barrier islands (as are most of us) but of more immediate importance is the problem of the impact of sea level rise on the lower most coastal plain where a 1-foot sea level rise could push the shoreline back for more than 2 miles and where storm surges will be higher and penetrate further inland due both to sea level rise and the expected intensification of hurricanes.

… Michaels is supporting the continuing development of beachfront and low elevation coastal plain property, putting off the response to sea level rise to the next generation. It is the height of irresponsibility.
—Orrin H. Pilkey

Hundreds of small towns are at risk here and individuals building or buying homes here need to consider the future Sea Level Rise in whether to build with higher stilts or perhaps to move to higher ground.

The bottom line is that Michaels, and by projection his Cato Institute and the John Locke Foundation sponsors, is supporting the continuing development of beachfront and low elevation coastal plain property, putting off the response to sea level rise to the next generation. It is the height of irresponsibility.

The longer we delay the more costly and difficult the response will be.

Orrin H. Pilkey is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He authored, co-authored and edited many books, including, “The Rising Sea”, co-authored with Rob Young, Director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and Professor of geosciences at Western Carolina University, and most recently, “Global Climate Change: A Primer” and “The World’s Beaches: A Global Guide To The Science Of The Shoreline”

Inside Climate Change and Our World’s Beaches with Dr. Orrin Pilkey

By Clayton Moore, The Kirkus Review

There is a vivid and glorious history of writing about the environment, ecology and the world around us. In the seminal book Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), the great transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau chronicled his spiritual journal but also described in magnificent detail the richness of life in the woods.

When John Steinbeck decided to voyage down the coast of California with his friend Ed Ricketts in 1940, little did he know they were leaving behind incredible insight into both their philosophies about the world in The Log of the Sea of Cortez (1951). We still read works like A Sand County Almanac (1949) to delve into the relationship between people and their environs.

The fact is that these books continue to be important not only for armchair scientists but for the rest of us to contemplate our place in this tense, fragile world. Dr. Orrin H. Pilkey (Useless Arithmetic, 2007, etc.) offers two decidedly different takes on the genre in his latest works.

The World’s Beaches (2011), written with three fellow scientists from around the world, is a comprehensive but relatable guide to the science of the shoreline, teaching readers precisely how beaches work and how to read the “character” of any given shoreline.

His second book, Global Climate Change: A Primer (2011), offers an accurate, comprehensive introduction to a controversial subject, written with his son Keith Pilkey and richly illustrated through batik art by Mary Edna Fraser.

Pilkey, professor emeritus of Geology and of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University, is unusual in his willingness to advocate for changes in policies that affect the environment. “Scientists, in my view, have a responsibility to spread the word,” he told Kirkus. “Part of the problem is that we scientists tend to be dullards when it comes to selling our case. Those who work in science tend to be very unsuited for spreading the word—that’s why they’re scientists. But although we should have opinions about policy, scientists should not determine policy per se, but should provide the basis for policy decisions.”

While the books may appear academic to the everyday reader, Pilkey warns that beaches remain one of the best indicators of things to come with global warming. “I believe that the first truly global crisis will be sea-level rise and the movement of beaches retreating into cities and other places requiring massive changes of one kind or another,” he says. “Understanding how shorelines work will be critical to our response to sea-level rise.”

As one of the world’s foremost experts, Pilkey also remains steadfastly at the eye of the hurricane when it comes to the political debate over global climate change. “The most common misconception is that put forth by ‘deniers,’ who argue that we scientists are biased and even incompetent. In trashing global change science, they damage science in general,” he says.

Pilkey believes the United States in particular is divided into two camps with radically different outlooks. “Simply put, there are those who believe that global warming is happening at that humans are responsible, and those who don’t,” he says. “I personally believe the level of education is greater in the first camp, but the rule is complex. One of the nation’s most prestigious papers, The Wall Street Journal, generally opposes the human connection and the idea of doing anything about global change. The New York Times, on the other hand, supports the concept of human involvement in climate change.”

Despite his immersive knowledge about beaches in particular, Pilkey admits that there’s more to learn. “In a broad way, we know a great deal about how beaches evolved,” he says. “When I look back, I find it embarrassing to think about what we believed were the principles of beaches. But there are still things we don’t know, like exactly what happens to all the sand that is disbursed from beaches during storms. Why do some beaches recover from storms, and others not?

“Part of the purpose of The World’s Beaches is to get people to love and appreciate beaches on a different level. They are the most dynamic geomorphic feature on the surface of the Earth.”

To the audience for Global Climate Change, Pilkey has a message, especially for those who remain burdened by doubt. “I want to tell the world that they should not read thermometers to determine warming,” he says. “They should read the Earth. Look at melting ice sheets, melting mountain glaciers, melting permafrost, warming oceans, rising seas, changing plant and animal patterns. There are many uncertainties about the future of global climate change, but the general trends are very strong. The public should not consider uncertainties to be a sign of weakness, but rather a sign that scientists are making careful statements. Strong, unbending statements about global change made with certainty are a sure sign of bad science.”

Food for thought.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for staring into the abyss and thinking about our place in it. As Steinbeck’s friend Doc Ricketts once wrote, “There are good things to see in the tide pools, and there are exciting and interesting thoughts to be generated from the seeing.”

Both The World’s Beaches and Global Climate Change are available now.

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

Published by University Of California Press
” Beaches are the most dynamic features on Earth, constantly changing shape and providing vital ecological functions and a home to environments of amazing biodiversity. Understanding the importance of the beach’s role vis-a-vis the land, the nearshore and the ocean and its biodiversity is crucial to its protection and preservation.”
—Santa Aguila Foundation

Global Climate Change: A Primer; A Book by Orrin H. Pilkey and Keith C. Pilkey, Illustrated with batik art by Mary Edna Fraser

Published by Duke University Press

An internationally recognized expert on the geology of barrier islands, Orrin H. Pilkey is one of the rare academics who engages in public advocacy about science-related issues. He has written dozens of books and articles explaining coastal processes to lay readers, and he is a frequent and outspoken interviewee in the mainstream media. Here, the colorful scientist takes on climate change deniers in an outstanding and much-needed primer on the science of global change and its effects.

After explaining the greenhouse effect, Pilkey, writing with son Keith C. Pilkey, turns to the damage it is causing: sea level rise, ocean acidification, glacier and sea ice melting, changing habitats, desertification, and the threats to animals, humans, coral reefs, marshes, and mangroves. These explanations are accompanied by Mary Edna Fraser’s stunning batiks depicting the large-scale arenas in which climate change plays out.

The Pilkeys directly confront and rebut arguments typically advanced by global change deniers. Particularly valuable are their discussions of “Climategate,” a manufactured scandal that undermined respect for the scientific community, and the denial campaigns by the fossil fuel industry, which they compare to the tactics used by the tobacco companies a generation ago to obfuscate findings on the harm caused by cigarettes.

Seawater Injections Could Lift Venice 12 Inches ?

Acqua alta, Venezia. Photo source: ©© Roberto Trm


Want to save sinking Venice from rising seas? Fight water with water, a new plan suggests.

Injecting billions of gallons of seawater could “inflate” porous sediments under the canal-crossed city, causing the Italian city to rise by as much as a foot (about 30 centimeters), scientists say.

Known to Venetians as the acqua alta, or “high water,” flooding driven by high tides submerges the lowest 14 percent of the Italian destination four times a year, on average.

And it’s only getting worse…

Read Full Article, National Geographic

Acqua alta, Venezia. Photo source: ©© Roberto Trm