Categorized | Suffolk Close-up

Rethinking the Shores

Posted on 13 September 2013

As the U.S. government moves to spend $700 million to attempt to shore up the Suffolk County coast from Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point — and Sagaponack and Bridgehampton are getting set to spend additional millions in efforts to try to bolster their beaches — Concerned Citizens of Quogue couldn’t have invited a more knowledgeable scientist to come to Suffolk County to speak about the coast.

“Alternatives For Protecting Our Dunes and Beaches” was the title of the talk last month by Dr. Robert Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.

A geologist, Dr. Young is a protégé of the program’s founder, Dr. Orrin Pilkey, a pioneer in the study of beach dynamics. Dr. Pilkey is now its director emeritus. The two co-authored the 2011 book “The Rising Sea.”

As former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said of the book: “A must read for all Americans. The authors are among our most eminent coastal scientists. They deliver, in clear and measured prose, an urgent message explaining how rising sea levels will affect New York, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and every coastal community in our country.”

As readers of this space are familiar, as a journalist on Long Island I’ve written about coastal issues for a long time — indeed, I go back more than 50 years in writing about that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Fire Island to Montauk Point plan, long-stalled, mainly by objections, and now, in a modified form after Superstorm Sandy, to be implemented.

Meanwhile, what’s new on the subject — also the theme of “The Rising Sea” and how Dr. Young began his talk in Quogue — is an awareness of global warming and how it’s causing a sea level rise. It’s scary and sad, but a reality. And as Publishers Weekly said in its review of “The Rising Sea,” which it called “a rational approach to inevitably rising sea levels,” even with “a significant reduction in carbon emissions, sea levels will continue to rise and, combined with increasingly severe storms, force a retreat from the shore.”

Dr. Young told the 120 people who packed into the Quogue Community Hall on August 17th that “the planet is clearly warming, the sea level is clearly rising…It’s an indisputable fact…The Earth is talking to us.”  He said: “Every single alpine glacier on the planet with few exceptions is receding,” he said. “If you want to see the snows of Kilimanjaro, they’ll be here for 10 more years. Glacier National Park will not have any more glaciers by mid-century.” The rise in sea level is due to glacier melt and also because when water is warmed “it expands.”

Where does that leave the shoreline? It’s becoming increasingly impacted by the rising sea. What’s to be done? Dr. Young emphasized what Dr. Pilkey decades ago documented before rising sea levels exacerbated the situation­“hard structures” such as stone jetties called groins when they are built to try to deal with erosion only hold the shore where they’re located. At the same time (as we on Long Island have learned) they cause serious erosion on the coast “downdrift” of them. He read passages from the Army Corps’ “Shore Protection Manual” showing even it acknowledges this now.

“Preferable to hard structures,” he said, is “beach nourishment” — the term used for dumping sand on the shore. But, Dr. Young warned, “you never do beach nourishment once.” It needs to be a “long-term commitment.” Problems with “beach nourishment” include how, he said, after the sand is dumped and a beach purportedly reinforced, that being used as “a guise to increase development.” Also, there is a new storm and “your [beach nourishment] project disappears in a year. That’s the risk.” Further, “sand is getting more expensive” and taken from a “borrow area” out to sea, it may be of poor beach quality.

Dr. Young went through other “alternatives” with “the first choice” – “relocate and develop incentives for doing this.” He commented, “I don’t say ‘retreat’ anymore.” That’s because Americans don’t like the sound of that word, he explained. “No, we say relocate.”

Moreover, it needs to be understood that “coastal erosion does not destroy beaches.” Beaches remain although they get reshaped by nature. The issue is the “infrastructure” along the coast — and when their continuation is threatened, more and more now by a rising sea, relocation is key.

The Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines  ( with excellent science takes an independent view on coastal issues. Its analyses should be heeded.


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