Disappearing beaches
Grim examples
Role of beaches
Solving beach erosion?
Global warming and sea levels

Update: Flooded Island


The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has movin' on its mind.


With the help of mucho rails, mondo beams, and macho hydraulic jacks, the lighthouse inches to its new perch overlooking the Atlantic.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse photos courtesy of International Chimney Corporation.


Think you've seen coastal erosion? Check out this 577k QuickTime movie!

bye bye house!

Movie courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.


Invited to the house-warming?
22 JULY 1999. If you need some second-hand boxes, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the place to look. After all, the 208-foot tall landmark was just hauled more than a quarter-mile back from its former perch, where it was threatened by the encroaching sea. And the end of every big move, we know, is signaled by a curbside littered with cardboard. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The lighthouse went a'truckin' after coastal erosion chewed away about 1,300 feet of beach, bringing the waves to within 150 feet of the 4,800-ton sentinel. When the light was erected in 1870, it stood about 1,500 feet back from the waves. (Need a map of the area?) Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The lighthouse, on the Outer Banks, North Carolina's long barrier beach, was built to warn ships from waters called "the graveyard of the Atlantic." Ironically, the move should serve as a warning about the growing problem of coastal erosion.

Erosion is not just plaguing the Outer Banks. Coastal residents up and down the United States are worrying about undermined cliffs, disappearing beaches, and the occasional dwelling diving into the briny.

Beaches are constantly moving, building up here and eroding there, in response to waves, winds, storms and relative sea level rise. Yet when commoners like you and me, and celebs like Steven Spielberg, build along the beach in places like Southampton, N. Y., we don't always consider erosion. After all, real-estate transactions are seldom closed during hurricanes or northeasters, which cause the most dramatic damage to beaches.

Yet Southampton, like all the barrier beaches that protect land from the sea, is vulnerable to obliteration by the very factor that makes it so glamorous: the sea (see "Lines in the Sand... " in the bibliography). And the problem is increasing because the sea is rising after centuries of relatively slow rise, and scientists anticipate that the rate of rise will continue to increase in the next century. Land, in many places, is also slowly sinking. The result is a loss of sand that places the occasional beachside home inconveniently near -- or in -- the water.

Still, erosion cuts in two directions, says Jim O'Connell, a coastal processes specialist with the Sea Grant program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "Without the process of erosion, we would not have the beaches, dunes, barrier beaches, and the highly productive bays and estuaries that owe their very existence to the presence of barrier beaches." Erosion of glacial landforms provides most of the beach sand in Massachusetts, he points out.

A popular destination
The beach-erosion problem has many causes. Among them are:

  • The ubiquitous desire to live near the sea.
  • A historically rapid rise in average ocean levels, now estimated to be rising at about 25 to 30 centimeters per century in much of the United States.
  • The gradual sinking of coastal land (since the height of the land and the sea are both changing, we use "relative sea level rise" to describe the rise of the ocean compared to the height of land in a particular location).
  • Efforts to reduce erosion that have backfired and instead increased it.
  • Global warming, which is expected to accelerate the rise in sea level.
The upshot is a threat to beaches and coastal communities around the world.

At stake is far more than a movie mogul's mansion. New Orleans, now several feet below sea level, would face a greater threat of annihilation. Island nations across the Pacific Ocean could disappear beneath the waves. Millions of Bangladeshis, already exposed to typhoons that drown hundreds of thousands at a time, would have to find new homes in one of the Earth's most crowded nations.

The predictions growing out of global warming studies are unsettling. Much of Long Island's extensive barrier beach, including not just the homes of the rich and famous in the Hamptons, but also public treasures like the vastly popular park at Jones Beach, would be submerged if sea levels rise by three feet, according to a projection by the National Environmental Trust, a Washington, DC, advocacy group. (As we'll see later, a three-foot rise over the next 50 to 100 years is possible, but extremely unlikely, according to current predictions.)

Coastal erosion is a knotty issue. Slowing global warming -- the ultimate cause for heightened concern about the future -- is proving problematic, to put it charitably. And many localized cures for erosion are worse than the disease. Some are "beggar-thy-neighbor" solutions that steal sand from one location to save another. Others are expensive Band Aids that pump sand from deep waters to the beach, where it immediately begins washing away.

How bad can it get?

The Why Files
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