At beaches, sand is running out
Erosion of America's coasts accelerates as man fights a sea rise of two feet a century
Americans in great numbers are heading to beaches this summer to enjoy the sun, the surf, and the sand. But when they arrive, many are asking a common question: Where's the beach?Skip to next paragraph
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Erosion, coastal overdevelopment, and misguided conservation efforts are taking a heavy toll on the nation's shoreline.
For generations, the United States has been waging a multibillion-dollar war against the forces of wind and tide. But the wind and the waves are winning.
The result: Coastal communities from Massachusetts to Texas to California are facing a shortage of sand. Their beaches are literally washing away.
"Development is destroying America's beaches," says Jacqueline Savitz, executive director of the conservation group Coast Alliance in Washington.
At the heart of the issue, experts say, is a fundamental misperception about beach erosion and the nature of beaches. Sandy coastlines are highly dynamic. Unaltered by man, they exist in perfect balance, eroding in some places while accreting in others. But when man attempts to hold the beach in a particular location, the effort inevitably backfires and erosion rates often accelerate.
"Everything that people are doing is useless, prohibitively expensive, or is making the situation worse," says Cornelia Dean, Science Editor of The New York Times and author of a new book, "Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches."
"Basically what the beach wants to do is move inland. If we let the beach do that, the beach would be preserved," Ms. Dean says. "But we build buildings very close to the edge of the sea, and when they are threatened we build sea walls or groins or revetments, and that dooms the beach."
To ecologists, the problem is a failure to understand that for beaches to survive, they must be free to move and evolve.
To property owners in coastal areas, the problem is that they've built a permanent structure on a temporary landscape. When the landscape begins to change and their investment is imperiled, property owners urge the government to wage what amounts to an unwinnable war against natural processes as old as the earth.
The stakes in the war are rising ever higher as oceanfront tracts continue to be converted at record pace from idyllic sand dunes into paved parking lots, luxury homes, high-rise condominiums, and seaside businesses.
Heavy price to pay
It seems in the 1990s everyone wants that exclusive ocean view, but few realize the potential costs in lives, money, and property. And the ultimate cost of such coastal development, experts say, is the beach itself.
"Coastal areas are developing two to three times faster than the rest of the country. What we have going on here is a migration of people to the coast," says Steve Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami.
"At the same time, the beaches are eroding and the ocean is headed toward us," he adds. "That is a classic definition of a collision course."
On one side are investments in homes and businesses worth $3.1 billion on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts alone. Most are highly vulnerable to storms and rising water.