As I write this, we along the Northeast coast are a month out from the catastrophic 11-foot storm surge pushed through by Hurricane Sandy. We are still cleaning up, and it’s likely that some things will never be the same. The guiding business in this area was always a precarious one, but with most of the infrastructure gone, it’s hard to be optimistic about its sustainability. The water from Montauk, New York, down to Barnegat, New Jersey, seems to be completely devoid of life and smells of raw sewage and diesel fuel. Certainly some of these impacts are temporary, yet there are larger, glaring issues here that communities like mine that are on or near the water have thus far failed to acknowledge or chosen not to.
While it’s convenient to think that Sandy was an anomaly — the unlikely merger of an unusually high full-moon tide, a hurricane and a nor’easter — it’s hard to argue that the incidents of such extreme weather don’t appear to be more frequent. According to the New York Times, 20 of the 30 most expensive insured catastrophes worldwide from 1970 to 2011 have occurred since 2001, 13 of which were in the United States. Aside from Sept. 11, 2001, all of these were natural disasters. Such an increase is of course related to the migration of people to high-risk areas and more valuable properties. Still, it’s becoming obvious that we are living through a period of flux. Whether you believe we are causing it or that there is anything we can do about it, the climate is changing and sea levels are rising.
The New York Times recently reported on a study that suggests that, no matter what, it’s unlikely we’ll keep the seas from climbing less than five feet by the first half of next century. Well before that we will likely see more and more storm surges as gradually rising seas lower flooding thresholds. According to the Times, over the last century, the eight-inch rise of the world’s seas has already doubled the chance of “once in a century” floods. Such conjecture is based on model projections, which are notoriously hard to get right. But there are other studies utilizing historical analysis that point to the same end.
Denial aside, it’s clear we have a very big problem, but it’s the solutions that sometimes scare me more than the flooding itself.
The continued construction of seawalls, jetties, offshore breakwaters, groins and, as some proponents suggest, levees is not the solution. It is now well understood that armoring beaches destroys them. Hard structures do not allow marshes and beaches to move inland in response to sea-level rise and eventually result in the loss of shoreline environments. Recent experience in New Jersey and elsewhere has made it very clear that seawalls aren’t successful in holding back major storm surges. Yet, they are very successful in eliminating habitat for marine organisms and providing beautiful beachfront for the public. Yes, these beaches can be artificially replaced, but at great cost to the marine environment, not to mention taxpayers, some of whom successfully argue they shouldn’t have to pay for the beach when they weren’t the ones irresponsible enough to build next to an eroding shoreline. Yet such knowledge is generally ignored by coastal developers and engineers and is still widely unrecognized by the general public.