Sand After Sandy: Scientists Map Seafloor For Sediment On the deck of a 27-foot boat off the shore of Long Island, researchers are using sonar to study the sand and sediment that washed away from the system of protective barrier islands and beaches by Hurricane Sandy.

Sand After Sandy: Scientists Map Seafloor For Sediment

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. Congress has now agreed to give some $60 billion to states damaged by Hurricane Sandy. One of the hardest-hit areas is Long Island. The storm not only destroyed homes and businesses there, but also washed away part of the system of protective barrier islands and beaches.

As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, scientists are now trying to find out where that sand and sediment went, and whether it can be used to rebuild Long Island's defenses.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: January's hardly a time to go boating on Long Island's south shore. But to ocean scientists, this is a crime scene. If you want fingerprints, you've got to move fast.


JOYCE: That's why a team of them has driven an SUV all the way from the University of Texas to this snow-covered dock. As boats bob in the waves, the team unpacks gear. A 25-knot wind blows across the water.

Beth Christensen is a local with the team. She's from Long Island's Adelphi University. She's huddled inside her car with a map.

BETH CHRISTENSEN: We're looking for the sand that got removed both by the wash-over as the surge moved through, but also the extended period of time that that storm was sitting here.

JOYCE: Long Island juts out into the Atlantic like New York City's thumb. On the south shore, sand dunes and barrier islands protect it. Sandy robbed those islands of sand and sediment. That makes Long Island more vulnerable. If that sand lies just offshore, it could wash back up and restore beaches on its own. If not, someone will have to either dredge it up or replace it - a very expensive prospect.

And the team is also searching for sediment that picked up toxic chemicals during the storm.

CHRISTENSEN: This is a power plant. Here's sewage treatment. Here's another sewage treatment plant, another sewage treatment plant. Here's runoff coming in from the streets through all of those creeks. And so, all of that combined ends up in these sediments.

JOYCE: Out on the dock, the 27-foot work-boat idles in a slip. Its sonar instruments capture images of the sea floor, images so clear you can tell the difference between sand and mud and rock, even the type of sand grain. That's important if that sand gets put back on the beaches.

CHRISTENSEN: If you can't find the right grain size, you're going to change the whole character of your beach. So if you walk the beach and you find piles of, you know, stinking, rotting organic rich mud on the beach, that's not really going to enhance tourism.

JOYCE: Once we're out in the bay, chief scientist John Goff turns on one of its sonar scanners called a CHIRP.


JOHN GOFF: That's the CHIRP.


GOFF: That's what you get to listen to all...


JOYCE: We drive back and forth in the sound. Goff calls it mowing the lawn.


JOYCE: He admits this part of sea-floor mapping is boring. What's interesting is the interaction between the shore and the sea floor.

GOFF: They feed off each other. You know, the sea floor sand could be a source for replenishing the beach, you know, naturally as well as artificially. Or the beach can be sending sediment to the ocean. So it goes back and forth.

JOYCE: Goff learned to do this in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Ike in 2008. He's trying to perfect the method.

GOFF: And we're going to expect more storms in the future if global warming continues. And so, understanding the impact of these storms is really important.

JOYCE: Not long into the day, though, things start to go awry. The gear shift breaks. The team fixes that but then the sonar computers mysteriously quit. We call it a day finally and swing into the dock. A stiff breeze pushes the boat around like a cork until we run into another docked boat.


JOYCE: No damage, just part of doing seat-of-the-pants research in a freezing windstorm on an unfamiliar boat.

GOFF: Frustrating, we got a little bit of data. It's not a great morning, but in the scheme of things it wasn't too bad.

JOYCE: A lot of that data ends up at Beth Christensen's lab at Adelphi University. The team is here to help figure out how to rebuild these barrier islands and what that will cost. But they're also a bit dubious that anything will be able to protect people living right on the shore.

Christensen says it's clear that the coastline here is dangerous. But how do you convince people to move?

CHRISTENSEN: That's a different story...


CHRISTENSEN: ...whether or not politicians are as interested in understanding the science behind the problem as they are in getting reelected. And, in order to do that, pleasing a constituency that probably doesn't really want a lot to change.

JOYCE: And that bothers Midwesterner Cassandra Browne, another team member. Browne grew up with tornados in Missouri. She says a tornado can hit anywhere but hurricanes hit coastlines.

CASSANDRA BROWNE: I have very little sympathy for people who...


BROWNE: ...choose to go out there and rebuild and then get smashed and then use taxpayer's money from all over the nation to rebuild and put more sand on their beaches, when we're sitting here telling them, look, that's a stupid idea.

JOYCE: Someone who knows what it's like to get smashed is Rob Weltner, a retired builder, electrician and lifelong Long Islander. He shows me around the echoing hulk of a maritime museum he runs in the coastal town of Freeport. The museum was damaged by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Then, Sandy hit it again a year later.

ROB WELTNER: And here's the high water mark from Sandy.


JOYCE: Whoa, chest high on me.

WELTNER: Chest high, yep.

JOYCE: Most everything - exhibits, furniture, walls - is ruined. He says peoples' attitudes here are different now like, whether the climate is really changing.

WELTNER: Man, like overnight they went from hell no to hell yes. That's the surprise that I saw was all these people who used to give me a lot of grief for even mentioning, you know, sea level rise and climate change, are now asking me what they can do.


JOYCE: And they really don't know what to do.

WELTNER: They're completely freaked out. Nobody seems to have real a good grip on what to do and how to fix this. Because people think it's going to happen again - should they rebuild - but they don't have any other place to go.

JOYCE: This is where science should have answers, like what's the best way to prepare for the next one. At least, that's the view of Jamie Austin, the senior member of the Texas team who's thawing out in a motel room after a cold day on the water.

JAMIE AUSTIN: We need to show society they can use science to help them prepare for what will inevitably be the next cataclysm.

JOYCE: Austin says teams like this one need to parachute in after a big storm to figure out what happened - fast.

AUSTIN: The notion that the coast is a constant is a lie. It's a myth. This coastline is the frontline. It's the battleground.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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