Shoring Up The Nation's Crumbling Coastlines


Jeffress Williams, Senior scientist emeritus, U.S. Geological Survey, Woods Hole Science Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts

Robert Young, Director, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, Professor, Coastal Geology, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, North Carolina

Keith Watson, Civil engineer, Project manager, Philadelphia district, Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Hurricane Sandy pummeled the beaches of the Northeast, stripping away sand and dunes, and ploughing through seawalls. Can beaches be rebuilt to face fiercer storms and rising seas? And is there even enough sand to do it? Ira Flatow and guests discuss engineering the nation's coasts for "the new normal."

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Hurricane Sandy battered the coastline here in New York and New Jersey. Take the city of Long Beach on Long Island. In 2006, the city council unanimously rejected a plan to construct 15-foot-high dunes on the beach there, saying that the 15-foot-high dunes would block ocean views, lower property values, affect surfers' waves.

And then Sandy hit and cost some $200 million in damage. Would dunes have spared that Long Beach, that damage? Possibly, because several neighboring communities that did build dunes escaped the worst of Sandy's wrath. What's our next step? Do we abandon the most vulnerable barrier islands, allowing them to be shifted or swallowed up by the sea? Or do we fortify our beachside communities with more mega-dunes, sea walls and jetties? A little bit of both?

As for your favorite summer beach spot, with those picturesque dunes topped by sand fences and beach grass, it might not even be there today if engineers didn't dump sand on it every once in a while. What's more, some geologists say we're running out of sand to do that.

So for the rest of the hour we're going to talk about changing coastline, preserving our beaches, protecting the cities beyond them, some of the engineering and design challenges there. Let me introduce my guests. Jeff Williams, a senior scientist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey at Woods Hole Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He joins us from WCAI. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Williams.

JEFF WILLIAMS: Well, thank you, Ira, glad to be here.

FLATOW: Robert Young is director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina and a professor of coastal geology there. He joins us from WCQS in Ashville. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Young.

ROBERT YOUNG: Thanks, great to be with you.

FLATOW: Keith Watson is a coastal engineer and project manager for the Philadelphia district of the Army Corps of Engineers. He joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mr. Watson.

KEITH WATSON: Thank you very much, glad to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Let me ask Jeff Williams. Would our northeast beaches just disappear if we stopped taking care of it? Would all the sand wash away if we didn't keep adding sand to it?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think we're under a new reality with climate change. We're seeing increased storm activity. We're seeing accelerated sea level rise. And so what has been the norm in the past I don't think is going to be the norm in the future. So in the future, I think we can expect to see more major storms like Sandy.

We're going to see an acceleration in sea level rise for this part of the world. And so I think we're under a need to look at all of these and plan for the future.

FLATOW: Rob Young, New Jersey Governor Christie said he wanted to employ beach engineering to bring the beaches back. What is beach engineering? What does that mean?

YOUNG: Well, primarily, I think he was speaking about trying to rebuild the beaches through beach nourishment, where you add sand and build sand dunes and essentially try and keep the beaches in place by adding sand to them and rebuilding them. New Jersey has also in the past had a history of building things like very large seawalls and groins and other coastal engineering structures and attempt to protect the property and to hold the shoreline in place.

FLATOW: Keith Watson, as a coastal engineer and project manager at the Army Corps of Engineers, what does beach engineering mean to you?

WATSON: Well, at the Corps of Engineers, we are in the business of building projects to reduce damages from coastal storms. Most of our projects involve the soft alternative, meaning beach fill with dunes. The dunes are the primary feature that add the protection to reduce the damages from the large coastal storms that occur. We also have some areas within inlets that we have constructed, stone seawalls where there were no beaches to protect the communities.

FLATOW: But Hurricane Sandy wiped out many of these dunes and even just plowed the stone seawalls into people's homes.

WATSON: Well, I am not aware of any of the Corps seawalls that actually were plowed into anyone's home. Ours held up very well. The two in the Philadelphia district that were constructed in the Hereford Inlet and Townsends Inlet on the north sides of North Wildwood, Hereford Inlet and Avalon fared very well in the storm. In fact, they kept waves from crashing on the homes and the infrastructure that are right behind them.

FLATOW: Well, we actually went out ourselves and have video of walls in people's homes, so...

WATSON: And where was that?

FLATOW: This was in New York.

WATSON: Oh, up in New York, OK. I was not aware of that.

FLATOW: But it's not a Corps project. It was not a Corps project. What's your opinion, Jeff Williams, about the best way to protect the beaches or the homes on them or to - what should be done for the new reality?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think what needs to be done is to recognize that was has happened in the past, as far as shore protection, is not something that's necessarily going to happen in the future. A lot of the techniques of protecting the shoreline, such as beach nourishment were developed following the Ash Wednesday storm in 1962. Clearly, the next 50 years is going to be very different than the last 50 years. And I think we need to take a larger look at the shoreline, not only the New Jersey-New York shoreline but all of the shorelines and start to identify areas that are most vulnerable and then have a discussion as to what that shoreline is going to - is likely to look like in the next 50 years to 100 years and what, if anything, can we do about it.

Clearly, some areas, it probably makes sense to build hard structures, if you have urban infrastructure such as New York. Other areas where recreation is important, it might make sense to do beach nourishment projects. But frankly, many areas along the coast, very low-elevation areas that are highly vulnerable, it might not make sense to rebuild in those areas because we're going to see recurrent losses from storms from the result of sea-level rise in the future.

And it just doesn't make sense to keep putting federal money, state money into rebuilding those areas. And the other limiting factor on beach nourishment is we know from geologic and geophysical surveys out on the continental shelf that the quantity of really high-quality sand for beach nourishment is very limited. It's a very finite resource. And so if we want to truly have a sustainable coast, we need to recognize that we can't necessarily rely on beach nourishment for decades and decades into the future. There just isn't enough high-quality material to use for beach nourishment.

FLATOW: We're talking about coastlines this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Jeff Williams, Robert Young and Keith Watson. Rob, you've been a vocal critic of rebuilding efforts - dumping sand on beaches, calling - or they say beach nourishment. Why are you so critical of these things?

YOUNG: I guess I was primarily been critical of the approach. You know, I'm not saying that coastal communities don't have a right to do beach nourishment, and I'm not suggesting that we should send in the storm troopers and force folks to abandon the coast. You know, the question is how we do this. We have 3,600 miles of shoreline on the U.S. East Coast and Gulf Coast, approximately. You know, we can't afford to hold all of it in place, and we can't afford to protect all of it with federal tax dollars by doing beach fill projects and coastal engineering. We just simply can't afford to do that.

And if we are going to spend federal money on some of these projects, we need a national plan for how we're going to do this. So we spend the money in the places where it makes the most sense, does the least amount of environmental damage, gives us the best chance to adapt to long-term sea-level rise. And the way we spend the money right now is we spend it in the place that got hit by the last storm, and, you know, that's reactive and not proactive, and it's the wrong way to do this.

FLATOW: And so where should we be spending it then?

YOUNG: Well, that's a good question, and I'm, you know, I'm not sure that I can give you a definitive answer. But the Senate on Monday is probably going to authorize spending about $3.5 billion for future coastal construction projects for shoreline protection and risk reduction. And the vast majority of that money has to be spent in the North Atlantic division of the Corps, and it's mostly going to be spent probably in New Jersey and New York.

Is that the best place to spend the money? I'm not sure that it is. If we're going to be spending that kind of money, we should have a national perspective. We should - there are a lot of vulnerable shorelines in the United States of America. And we need to bring the best science to the table. We need to have long-term planning. And we don't need to be doing this in emergency spending bill. We need to develop a national plan for how we're going to do this.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So you're not just saying this because you're not in the northeast? And that money would be going to the northeast.

YOUNG: Let me just say that there are some beaches in my home state of North Carolina, like the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where we've been trying to hold North Carolina Highway 12 in place for a couple of decades, where I think we're wasting federal money as well. So I'm not turf guarding here. You know, I think that the best thing for us to do is to take a national approach and let the chips fall where they may, and if we're going to spend these federal dollars.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back, talk about - some more about rebuilding the beaches, what's the best way to do that. Our number, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. Reengineering our thinking after this break. Stay with us. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about the new normal; the rising ocean water, as in more intense storms of the future, how our coastlines will cope. Can we engineer our way out of this and to find a solution? Or is it time to retreat?

My guests are Jeff Williams of the U.S. Geological Survey, Woods Hole; Robert Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University; Keith Watson, a coastal engineer, project manager for the Philadelphia district of the Army Corps of Engineers. Keith, what will the Corps do with that $3.5 billion?

WATSON: Well, Ira, back to one of the points Mr. Young was making earlier, that the North Atlantic division, and specifically the Jersey Shore, has over 30 million people living within a two-hour drive and all the economics that goes behind that. The shoreline is, you know, developed and the people are there and the society is there.

The Corps of Engineers is asked to come in to do studies, to look at how to reduce damages from storms to the infrastructure and the people there. And that's why we're doing our projects. Sea level rise is part of that. Sea level rise is included in the analysis we do. Our projects are authorized for 50 years for each one of the project locations. And the benefits to cost are weighed, and then the projects get authorized for construction only if they demonstrate that they're going to protect more damages than they're going to cost over to 50 years.

FLATOW: Is it possible to engineer and build a beach that could resists a storm of the strength of Sandy one more time, or a few hits in the future of a few of those storms?

WATSON: Well, unfortunately, we just had Sandy come. And the areas that - along Long Beach Island, for instance, that had the federal project completed saw virtually no damage from the storm the size of Sandy, which along that stretch, you could argue a few of the parameters of the storm. But it's either the first or second in order the storm to ever hit that area. And, you know, those areas that had the federal project saw very little damage.

FLATOW: And...

WATSON: One mile down the shore, you have millions and - hundreds of millions of dollars damage on the rest of the island.

FLATOW: Was that due because there were very strong sand dunes in there for - protective sand dunes growing for years?

WATSON: There's only one area that had a very large sand dunes not federally constructed on that island and - actually, two, Ship Bottom and Barnegat Light, were the two areas. Barnegat Light probably have some of the largest dunes on the Jersey Shore for any other communities. But the only other areas that did not take significant damage from the ocean were Harvey Cedars and Surf City and this area in Long Beach township known as Brant Beach where we had constructed the federal project.

FLATOW: What was the - describe for us that project that you were talking that resisted Sandy.

WATSON: Sure. In those communities on Long Beach Island, they were constructed beach fills. They have dunes with a berm and a foreshore slope constructed in front of them to protect the dune as the storm waters are rising. The dunes are approximately 22-foot elevation. It's based on North Atlantic - North American Vertical Datum of '88. So the dunes were substantial. They did take significant erosion from Sandy but did do their jobs to significantly reduce the damages behind us.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And is it possible to do that up and down the whole coastline? Is that desirable?

WATSON: We - well, for the corps, we're going to work in areas that we've been authorized to. And each one of the studies have to have - and, again, I've said - analysis period of 50 years. We take into accounts sea level rise and the availability of sand for that reach.

I'm going to go to Mr. Williams' point about the sand resources. Right now, for all the projects we have, we have enough sand resources. In the future, the projects need to be re-evaluated just for that. One of the reasons is for that.

FLATOW: Because there's not enough sand. Why is there not enough sand anymore?

WATSON: Well, that would be a question for Mr. Williams.

FLATOW: Jeff, do you want to answer that?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Let me just say that the - basically, the beaches that we have, the barrier beaches that we have now, for the most part, are just several thousand years old. And there's no new sediment that's coming down the rivers or coming from the continental shelf to really feed those beaches. And so what we have are all that we're going to get. And as sea level rose, we have to remember that at the end of the last glacial period, sea level was about 400 feet lower than where it is at the present time. As the climate warmed and sea level rose naturally, a lot of that sand that was out on the continental shelf got carried landward, and that's what constructed the beaches that we have now. But as a result, the continental shelf is fairly devoid in many places - particularly along the New Jersey coast - fairly devoid of sand deposits that might be used for beach nourishment.

FLATOW: So the - I'm sorry.

WILLIAMS: There are some shoals out there that contain sand that can be used, and that's what the Corps has been using. But those shelves are very limited, and once they're dredged and that material is brought up on the beach, they don't replenish themselves. That sand, as a resource, is essentially gone.

YOUNG: Ira, can I add one more thing here?

FLATOW: Sure. Please...

YOUNG: You know, I think that, you know, the debris to which Corps projects protected infrastructure during Sandy, you know, still needs to be evaluated from a very rigorous scientific perspective. And we may find out that they did play an important role. But the real issue here is, you know, whose job is it to pay for the protection of that private property along the Jersey shore? Is it the job of federal taxpayers to pay for this? And should federal taxpayers be paying for the protection of private property along every beach in America?

And, you know, we're told that it's, you know, it's worth the money because these coastal economies are so vibrant and so vigorous. And, you know, I forget what the number that Governor Christie quoted from New Jersey. Something like $32 billion a year in tourism, you know? And our point has always been that if these coastal economies are so critical and so vibrant in generating so much income, then they ought to be able to pay for these projects themselves. It should not be the job of federal taxpayers to step in there and assume the job of covering the risk for people who choose to continue to live in vulnerable coastal areas. I'm not suggesting that we order them off the beach. I'm just suggesting that if they decide to continue to invest in those areas, they shouldn't expect taxpayers to cover the risk.

FLATOW: Could you make regulations for getting the money that you build higher up? Maybe on, you know, pilings of 10 feet above the sea level that might protect you from the next flood.

YOUNG: I mean, obviously, elevating structures is a good idea, and we've heard a lot of people talking about doing that along the Jersey coast. But, you know, if you elevate your home and the barrier island around and is disappearing underneath you, that's not going to help. And so along with elevating the houses, you know, primarily, what we're talking about right now is trying to hold the shoreline in place in front of those houses despite rising sea level and despite the future of coastal storms. And we know this is going to happen. We know these solutions are temporary.

So, you know, in order to make wiser decisions at the coast, I think we need to allow markets to play a greater role in deciding where it makes sense to rebuild and where it doesn't. And as long as federal taxpayers are absorbing all of the risks of those decisions by piling money back into these communities and by putting the beaches back and maintaining those beaches in place, then, you know, there's no disincentive of rebuilding.

FLATOW: Why did the shoreline move?

WATSON: I think a point that needs to be made about that is the beaches aren't only there for the folks that are there, living there. They're also used by everyone else in the country that comes to the beaches for recreation, tourism and all the other reasons that they're there. We can have debate on where the federal dollar is to be spent, but we can have that debate on just about anything that the federal government does. The Corps of Engineers doesn't decide. We only act when we're called upon to protect the areas that it's, to our rules and regulations, is justified to do the work, from a federal investment standpoint.

YOUNG: Yes, but those beach communities are reaping all of the economic benefits. And so, you know, in America, we believe in markets and we believe in allowing markets to play a role in setting property values and, you know, deciding where it makes sense to build an economy. And in this case, the fact that federal taxpayers continue to subsidize maintaining those beaches in front of those homes means that we are in - that's a false economy, in effect. And you're right. Other Americans like to go to those beaches, but we go to those beaches and we leave our money. We don't leave those beaches with money.

And, you know, the beaches - to get back to your question, Ira, the beaches are moving because sea level is rising. And so, you know, the shoreline is naturally trying to slide landward with rising sea level. And if there was no development there, the beaches would not disappear, you know? Some shorelines like the Barrier Islands off the coast of Virginia are moving very rapidly in response to rising sea level. But the beaches don't disappear. The beaches are still there. You know, the beaches start to disappear when you have roads, seawalls or development. And then the beaches, when sea level rises and the coastline tries to retreat, the beaches themselves disappear in front of that development.

And so beach nourishment projects, fill projects, are an effort to maintain those beaches in front of the investment property. And if the investment property were not there, the beaches that the rest of the Americans would like to visit would be there. It's just that the houses wouldn't be there.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Is that the $3.5 billion? I got only about a minute left. Is that - can be enough to nourish and rebuild all those beaches along the East Coast, Keith Watson?

WATSON: The amount of monies that are in the bill that's pending in Congress would be enough for us to repair the beaches that are damaged and construct the other federally authorized projects within New Jersey. I can only speak for the territory that, you know, I am in charge of. But I think also for the entire North Atlantic division.

YOUNG: Since about the 1930s, Ira, we've spent around $1 billion total on all of the beach building projects in New Jersey. We tracked this in a database at the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. So that's $1 billion in 2012 dollars to rebuild all of the beaches through the last several decades in New Jersey. So actually, $3.5 billion is a huge amount of money. I mean, they can rebuild every beach from Delaware to Connecticut, and there's going to be money left over. You know, I'd really to know what they're going to do with that money. And it's not spelled out in the authorization bill.

FLATOW: All right. We run of time. I'd like to thank my guest, Jeff Williams, senior scientist emeritus for the U.S. Geological Survey at Woods Hole Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Robert Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, and professor of coastal geology there; Keith Watson, coastal engineer and project manager for the Philadelphia district of the Army Corps of Engineers. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

WATSON: Thank you, Ira

YOUNG: Thank you.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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