Sea Walls Are No Match For Severe Storms Made Worse By Climate Change

Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Hurricane Isaias, while only a category 1 (low strength) storm, caused great damage along the coast of the Carolinas and inland up the I-95 corridor, with several people killed, leaving nearly 3 million people without power, and causing widespread flooding necessitating water rescues up the Eastern seaboard all the way from Myrtle Beach, SC to Philadelphia, CNN reported last night Which begs the question — how do we protect ourselves from the increased risk of storm surge along our coasts?  The Washington Post’s Climate Solutions columnist Sara Kaplan wrote a great piece on why sea walls are not the best answer to our growing challenge from rising seas and increasingly severe storms.  Not to mention causing erosion to beaches that everyone loves.

Why This Matters:  Sea level rise and coastal flooding are some of today’s toughest climate challenges.  While the gut instinct may be to “build that wall,” in the case of the ocean, walls and other “hardened” structures only make matters worse.  There are really only two good options as Kaplan explains.  We can either move to higher ground.  Or we can heed the environmental experts and coastal researchers who “say natural solutions are the way to go — after all, they’ve been working for the planet longer than humans have been alive.”

Isaias Barreled Up The East Coast

Hurricane Isaias was a doozy — it spawned more than a dozen tornadoes have been reported in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, according to CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller. The local NYC power company Con Edison said it was the most power outages since Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of the region – a building in Brooklyn collapsed due to the storm. The wind was a big problem — The Weather Channel reported “Frequent gusts from 60 to 70 mph were clocked along the Jersey Shore, New York City and Long Island, including a 78 mph gust at New York’s Battery Park and in Farmingdale.  Manteo, North Carolina, Norfolk, Virginia, Salisbury, Maryland, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, all clocked wind gusts over 60 mph. The National Hurricane Center reports that a wind gust to 94 mph was measured at a weather station at York River East, Virginia.”

Hard Barriers Cause Problems

Kaplan describes the ways in which sea walls and rock jetties transform the areas they are intended to protect — and not in good ways.  Walls and other “hard” structures cause beach erosion, and degrade coastal habitats that provide natural protection — salt marshes, seagrass meadows, rolling expanses of sand dunes — from the energy of tides and storm surge.  Similarly, the “dense, anchored root systems of mangrove forests help dissipate storm energy, prevent erosion and filter water as it drains from the land into the sea” and oyster beds “provide a natural breakwater in front of coastal communities.”  Kaplan cites a “2014 study of salt marshes — where hardy grasses grow in spongy peat that gets flooded by the tides — found that they are more durable and better at preventing erosion than human-built bulkheads.”


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