Orrin H. Pilkey

2004 SeasonPilkey

Orrin H. Pilkey is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology at Duke University. Pilkey and William J. Neal are editors of the Living with the Shore book series. His expertise is in basic and applied coastal geology, focusing primarily on barrier island coasts, with a secondary expertise in coastal zone management. He has a Ph.D. in geology from Florida State University and is director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.


How to Read a North Carolina Beach: Bubble Holes, Barking Sands, and Rippled Runnels (2004)

The Beaches Are Moving: The Drowning of America's Shoreline (1979)


From How to Read a North Carolina Beach:

Bubble Holes, Barking Sands, and Rippled Runnels :


Chapter 7

Conservation of Beaches


The previous chapters have demonstrated that there is a lot more to North Carolina’s beaches than meets the eye. The beaches evolve in a fascinating hodge-podge of biological and physical processes, modern and ancient, that we barely understand. The fact that there is so much yet to learn makes beaches all the more alluring.

In this chapter we are probably preaching to the saved, because the chances are that if you’ve read this far in the book (and didn’t cheat by trying to find out the ending before finishing), you are already a beach-lover. You don’t need to be convinced that North Carolina’s beaches are priceless. You probably also know that our beautiful beaches are in trouble. No one needs to prove to you that we have a problem. The frequency and number of articles and reports in the media about beach erosion, beach nourishment, and beachfront development/environment conflicts attest to the fact that something foul is afoot. In addition, if you have been going down to the beach for a number of years, a decade or more, you have probably noted that the buildings near the beach have increased in both size and number, and you have observed that the shoreline has gotten closer to the buildings (Plate 8). If you have walked far enough along your beach, you have probably seen a number of sandbag seawalls or some dunes made up of shelly sand—a dead giveaway that they are bulldozed piles of sand. You might even have seen some bulldozers in action or perhaps their tracks. If you came down to your beach in the spring, your trek to the water may have been blocked by a long line of pipes moving sand to a point from which it was spewed onto the beach. And if you’ve encountered this type of project, you may have been surprised and disappointed by the new color of your beach, or by the angular shell debris or coarse material that detracted from your recreational use of the beach.


In fact, your impression may be that the beaches of North Carolina have turned into giant engineering projects. Is this what we want for our beaches—to be regarded and treated as no more than another community infrastructure on a par with roads, sewer lines, and telephone poles? There is a difference!


Beach retreat is not a new discovery. North Carolinians have been coping with the effects of sea-level rise since colonial times. But the practice of building communities right next to the beach is a new phenomenon. Early Outer Banks settlements as well as the first resorts at Nags Head were all located on the backsides of the islands, as far as possible from the beach. But development encroached toward the beach, and the sea did the same. By the mid-twentieth century it was clear that we were heading for an erosion problem.


The biggest single threat to beach survival is shoreline armoring (Fig 7.1). Construction of seawalls and groins always leads to the loss of beaches in the next generation or two. In 1985 North Carolina was a pioneer in farsighted coastal management, strictly regulating construction of new shoreline armoring (Fig. 7.2). Unfortunately, nature tested the regulations by backing shorelines right up to expensive homes owned by politically influential people, and the regulations were found wanting. The state compromised by allowing installation of temporary seawalls made of sandbags (see Plate 8), but as far as the beach is concerned, there is no difference between a sandbag wall and a concrete wall. In the meantime, the original temporary two-year time limit for the “temporary” walls has long since expired. Only storms have removed the walls, but all the while, more sandbag walls are being built. Limits have been defeated by variances and by officials who have allowed “temporary” to mean “permanent.” Along with the beaches, the political will to conserve one of the state’s most important resources has also eroded.


What’s Up?


What’s up? Well, the number of buildings is increasing along our North Carolina shorelines because we are in the middle of a giant rush to the sea. The scramble to the beach is fueled by a society with a lot of money, a love for the sea and a desire to live beside it, a greedy development industry, an irresponsible real estate industry, local governments anxious to create more tax revenue and employ more local citizens, and a contempt for the forces of nature. Sea level continues to rise, moving the shoreline ever closer to the buildings. All over the world, whether they are developed or not, shorelines are retreating in a landward direction.


Most likely sea level is rising in part because of the greenhouse effect. Increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other compounds are accumulating in the atmosphere at an accelerating rate, and the atmosphere is being warmed. Glaciers all over the world are receding at alarming rates, melting and contributing “new” water to the oceans. The warming atmosphere is heating and expanding the oceans’ surface water, which also leads to higher sea level. It is clear that the most recent jump in the rate of sea-level rise, which began perhaps a hundred years ago, is here to stay. Sea level will continue to rise, and most likely that rise will accelerate in coming years.


So What?


The standard question all good research scientists ask when their results are in is, “So what?” Shorelines will continue to retreat toward and beyond the houses, and beachfront property owners will become more and more desperate as their buildings threaten to tumble into the sea. Well, “So what? That’s their problem,” you might say. “Why should it worry me?” You should be worried because, in order to solve their problem, they create problems for the rest of us who use the beach. Beachfront property owners are a very small number of citizens compared with the number who use the beach. Yet they control the fate of the public domain—our beach. And what they are doing to your beach is destructive both environmentally and, in the long term, economically.


From a short-term economic standpoint, owning a beachfront house makes sense. Individuals and companies own many such buildings for the sole purpose of making money—an old and respectable American tradition. In this sense, the North Carolina beachfront is a giant cash cow. No doubt about it, however, by most other measures of societal and personal responsibility, owning a beachfront house is imprudent, if not irrational. Stan Riggs, a geologist at East Carolina University, has suggested that owning beachfront property is akin to having a picnic on an interstate highway, an image meant to convey how irrational it is to put your property as well as yourself and others at risk.


Whether these property owners are irresponsible or irrational, the real problem is that a massive and costly effort will be carried out to hold the shoreline in place when their buildings are threatened with falling into the sea. These efforts to fix the shoreline are well under way in North Carolina. Almost every beach community is doing some bulldozing to form artificial dunes, a process that kills all the critters in the upper beach and is in itself a form of beach erosion. In most communities there are buildings located right out on the beach, interfering with your beach activities and dramatically decreasing the aesthetics of the beach. On at least ten beaches, the sand you play on no longer has the beautiful brown coloration of a native North Carolina beach because that sand has been brought in from somewhere else and pumped up onto the beach (a few more dead critters). And in ever increasing numbers, sandbag seawalls are appearing along the beaches, ultimately contributing to their degradation (Figs. 7.3 and 7.4). Your beach has become the playground of engineers.


Well, why not save these beachfront buildings? Is it reasonable just to let them fall into the sea? We are a society of great engineering skill. We build levees to protect property along rivers and dams to control river flow, and we construct buildings to resist earthquakes. Why not build seawalls or artificial dunes to protect property along beaches? Why walk away from an engineering solution?


First, let’s examine that question from the standpoint of global warming. The erosion of our shorelines in North Carolina became an “erosion problem” when buildings were threatened. It is important to distinguish between erosion and an erosion problem. This erosion problem may be the first large-scale and global impact of the greenhouse effect. We are already seeing major losses of important wetlands in the Mississippi Delta, and it may not be long until such climate changes will affect agriculture in the U.S. Midwest. Should we roll with the punches of the greenhouse effect, or should we try to engineer our way out of them? In the Mississippi Delta, plans are afoot to hold the shorelines in place and keep everybody happy to the tune of billions of dollars per decade. In the Midwest, we hear talk of bringing irrigation water from the Great Lakes to newly parched fields so farmers can continue to grow the same corn crops that they always have. But why not change crops, and why not accept marsh loss? Why insist on the status quo? Is it even possible to sustain an engineered society that is out of context with its environment?


The status quo is what we in North Carolina attempt to maintain when we accept the principle that beachfront houses should be saved. But why should we pay a huge price to save the property of a small number of people who were so ignorant or arrogant that they built right next to an eroding shoreline? Aside from this philosophical problem, the next question is, why should we pay through our federal government to bail them out of the consequences of their imprudent actions? Why don’t they pay to hold the shoreline in place?


Right now we are planning to continue nourishing our beaches. We have a plan rolling along to nourish essentially every beach in North Carolina that has buildings on it. “Rolling along” is putting it mildly. The North Carolina beach nourishment program is akin to a juggernaut hurtling down a steep hill. But some beaches—for example, those at Figure Eight Island and Kill Devil Hills—have little nearby sand to use on the beach. More important, however, is that as sea levels rise the erosion rates of nourished beaches will become ever greater, and the cost of keeping artificial beaches in place will be ever higher. The quality of sand used will diminish as well. Already we have two “bad” nourished beaches, one that is too shelly (Pine Knoll Shores) and one that contains abundant grapefruit-sized rocks (Oak Island) (Figs. 7.5, 7.6, and 7.7). Most likely, within two to three generations the sea-level rise will force us to give up on nourishment and build massive seawalls. By that time, national priorities will have moved on to saving sea-level cities such as New Orleans, Miami, Manhattan, and Boston, and the Wrightsville Beaches and Nags Heads will have moved to society’s back burner.


Adding to this problem is the fact that nourished beaches lead to greatly increased property values, which in turn encourages builders to replace single-family houses with larger, multifamily units lining the shore. High-rises will quickly supplant beach cottages. It’s already happening at Carolina Beach—all because of the beach nourishment. Once a beach is lined with highrises, all flexibility of response to the sea-level rise is forfeited. The future giant seawall becomes a certainty.


The loss of the natural beach is also an environmental disaster. This physical buffer offers storm protection while acting as the coastal conduit of sand that supplies a wide range of ecosystems. We have seen that the beach is the critical interface between land and sea as well as an ecosystem unto itself. Even beach nourishment, often sold as “working with nature,” takes a heavy toll on plant and animal species. In the end, artificial beaches and dunes are just that—artificial, rather than the dynamic natural order that sustained the ecosystem.


What’s the Alternative?


We can decide not to defend the status quo and begin making decisions based on the interests of all who use our beaches. If we decide that beaches are more important than buildings, we can let the shoreline retreat and let the buildings fall in when their time comes. Or we can move the buildings back. Or we can move them off-island, or even initiate planned gradual demolishment. If we do any of these things, we will save the beaches for our descendants. A study of beach nourishment alternatives in Dare County showed that purchasing beachfront property outright would be far cheaper than nourishing the beach over a time span of several decades. The technology to move buildings, even substantial ones, exists. Entire communities have been moved out of floodplains.


Actually, if we really put our hearts and our pocketbooks into it, we could eventually save the beachfront houses in the Dutch fashion, with massive seawalls and dikes. But the environmental and economic price would be huge, and we would leave no beaches behind for our great-grandchildren.


There is little in-between breathing space. Once we start nourishing a beach, or once we build a seawall, there is no turning back. Historically, we rarely reverse our course when it comes to shoreline engineering. We can, for example, fine-tune the retreat from the shoreline with some beach nourishment. And when we nourish the beach, we could require that beach cottages must remain just that—no highrise jungles allowed. That would allow the next generation to reevaluate the strategy for saving beaches.


Right now, it is up to the citizens of North Carolina to decide what’s more important: buildings or beaches? The greatest riddle of all may be, “What did we destroy because we loved it so much?”


From HOW TO READ A NORTH CAROLINA BEACH: BUBBLE HOLES, BARKING SANDS, AND RIPPLED RUNNELS by Orrin H. Pilkey, Tracy Monegan Rice, and William J. Neal. Copyright (c) 2004 by Orrin Pilkey, Tracy Rice, and William Neal. Published by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.