A 2000 report by the Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment predicted that by the middle of the 21st century, one out of every four houses within 500 feet of the U.S. shoreline may be lost to erosion; that amounts to about 87,000 dwellings disappearing into the sea at a rate of 1,500 per year. Everything from Malibu mansions on the West coast to tiny seaside cottages on the East coast to rustic cabins in Maine and sprawling hotels in Galveston will end up in Davy Jones’s locker. (The Heinz report also strongly suggested that FEMA raise flood insurance rates along the coast to pay for expected erosion damage, something that is finally now being considered.)
What makes these figures perhaps even more alarming is the fact that coastal counties, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are home to over half the U.S. population, even though they represent only 17 percent of the nation’s land. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 153 million people playing the role of sitting ducks for the next category run-for-cover storm that hits our shores. And all of you on the coast of the Great Lakes, don’t look so smug—you’re in danger too.
No one doubts that erosion is a big problem. In fact, it’s been a big problem ever since 1922, when engineers decided to replenish the beach at Coney Island with extra acres of sand to allow more room for courting couples to meander the shore in their casual lace-up boots and bathing suits that dared to show a bit of calf. The idea of rebuilding beaches with trucked in sand became known, most likely after an expensive PR firm got involved, as beach nourishment. Who could possibly object to something that sounds so downright healthy?
Miami Beach is the poster child for beach nourishment: Between 1976 and 1981 the city invested $64 million to expand their dwindling ribbon of sand, which in places was too narrow for a towel and beach umbrella at high tide, into a vast, sunny playground hundreds of feet deep, suitable for volleyball and other sunstroke-induced shenanigans. In the process, they brought the city back from the brink of tourism death. Money well spent, says just about everyone in the city.
But beach nourishment can’t stop erosion—it only forestalls it a bit. It is also expensive, meaning that it is usually only an option for well-to-do communities, and furthermore, not everyone is in favor of the practice. In 2003 the case Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Antonin Scalia upheld the lower court’s ruling that the new land created by a renourishment plan in Destin, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, belonged to the state, rather than the property owner whose land initially touched the water. Thus, in Florida, at least, some homeowners object to the practice of extending the beach through renourishment because it means that they no longer own the property to the edge of the water. Others object to beach nourishment plans because they can impact species such as sea turtles that use the beach for nesting.
When beach nourishment isn’t practical, some communities have turned to building seawalls, which actually exacerbate erosion because they prevent the land mass from absorbing a storm’s energy (much the same way the front end of a well-engineered car absorbs the impact of an accident, thereby allowing passengers to survive). Seawalls are an ancient technique and only useful if done correctly, but in the end they may offer no protection against rising sea levels due to climate change and extreme events, such as the magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Japan in 2011 that overwhelmed the world’s largest seawall.
The third way of dealing with erosion is to accept it and relocate buildings inland; this is called managed retreat. That’s what happened with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, first constructed on the Outer Banks Island of Hatteras in North Carolina in 1802. A new lighthouse was constructed in 1870, and over the next hundred years erosion brought the edge of the ocean to 120 feet of the historic monument. In 1999, in what the media dubbed “the move of the millennium,” the lighthouse was moved 2,870 feet inland, making it, at 200 feet tall, the tallest structure ever relocated. While managed retreat seems like a good idea for a historic lighthouse, it certainly isn’t feasible for the typical homeowner, whose relocated house is likely to conflict with the location of his neighbor’s house across the street.
There’s no way to stop coastal erosion; it’s just part of how Earth works, along with volcanoes and earthquakes. Come to think of it, not only haven’t we moved away from the dangerous shoreline, we also live alarmingly close to volcanoes and fault lines. But you can no more criticize someone for craving the beauty of the seashore than you can for craving the inspiration of a hopefully dormant volcano. The beauty and danger of the planet are two sides of the same tossed coin, which mostly, but not always, lands in our favor.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.