Ned Barnett

Pilkey’s call: Save the beaches

This holiday weekend many beachgoers will be scanning the water for sharks after the recent series of attacks off North Carolina. But if these beachgoers were time travelers, they would see a much broader threat – the beach sliding away beneath their feet.

Beaches move, and with rising sea levels they are moving faster. People try to slow or halt the process by dredging up sand or erecting imposing seawalls, but those are destructive and doomed efforts. To save the beaches, we must let beaches go where and how they want.

That humans should harmonize with beaches rather than try to control them is the theme “The Last Beach,” a new book by Orrin H. Pilkey and J. Andrew G. Cooper. The book looks at the embattled state of beaches around the world where foolish beachfront construction, Sisyphean beach re-nourishment efforts and pollution from sewage, garbage and oil are ruining one of the world’s idyllic wonders, the broad stretches of sand where the land meets the sea.

“Can we imagine a world without beaches?” the authors ask. “As inconceivable as it might seem, such a loss is a distinct possibility, thanks to the way we abuse the shoreline at this time of rising sea level.”

Pilkey, 80, is well known to North Carolinians as a seaside Cassandra warning of the dangers and degradation caused by heavy coastal development. He is a professor emeritus of geology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and author of several books about shorelines. Cooper is a coastal studies professor at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland.

In “The Last Beach,” Pilkey and Cooper take on the far more than familiar issue of beachfront development in the United States. They examine beaches around the world, many of them strewn with trash and debris or narrowed to thin strands where the sea pounds on sea walls. The book is particularly powerful in its many photos, ranging from pristine natural beaches to instances where the beach has been reconstructed on top of a seawall.

The book provides an unsettling account of how beaches – often considered a zone of sea- and sun-washed purity – are frequently polluted by stormwater runoff and sewage. Beaches are sometimes closed because of high levels of harmful bacteria. Pilkey’s grandson picked up a dangerous MRSA infection after a cut became infected while he was surfing.

Pollution, however, can be cleaned up and stopped by proper management. Bad coastal development is much harder to correct. In an interview last week, Pilkey said the rising seas present a catastrophe for urban areas where high-rise hotels and condominium buildings line the beach.

“They can’t be moved, so what are we going to do with them?” he asks. “Florida has hundreds of miles of high-rises. What are they going to do? I think they will become offshore reefs.”

Of course, before that happens, property owners will push for ever bigger seawalls.

While the book takes a worldwide view, there is plenty in it that is about or relevant to North Carolina. It includes a photo of a house on Nags Head that has been moved back from the ocean five times for a total of 600 feet.

Despite the widespread loss of beaches, Pilkey and Cooper stress that beaches are not fragile. They are dynamic. The beach is flat to disperse the energy from the waves and it must move to maintain that balance. Trying to lock a beach in place effectively breaks the dynamic that has allowed beaches to survive what the authors say is 400 feet of sea level rise over the last 20,000 years.

Pilkey helped push through a 1985 law banning the hardening of shorelines in North Carolina and he’s encouraged by a growing recognition that coastal communities will have to give ground to save their beaches.

“We’re going to have to retreat,” he says. “There’s no better evidence than at Nags Head and Kitty Hawk where houses fall in (the ocean) every year.”

The damage to the Northeast coast from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was further evidence of how global warming is creating a twin threat to coasts – higher sea levels and more intensive storms. Pilkey says that event gave political momentum to the often ignored warnings about the forces bearing down on the coasts.

“We have two choices. We can retreat in a planned fashion or we can retreat in response to disasters and retreat in disarray,” Pilkey says. “We could retreat now – we won’t, we’re not ready yet – but I’m encouraged by the words of the politicians after Sandy.”

Beaches, Pilkey says, need to be protected from pollution and the fetters of property owners who would try to lock them in place.

“The Last Beach” won’t end the spoiling of beaches and the rising of sea walls and beachfront hotels and condominiums, Pilkey knows, but it may turn the conversation toward the time when such abuse will have to end, or beaches will.

“I'm an old hand at this. I know this is not going to be a sudden revelation,” Pilkey says. “But it might be another little step in alerting the public about what is ahead for the next generation. It is the next generation that’s really going to be in trouble.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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