Coastal Peril: The Unnoticed Costs of Sea Level Rise

As summer winds down, many of us are packing away our sunscreen and beach towels with fond memories of beach trips and coastal excursions that filled our summer days. My own weekends spent at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina were carefree and enjoyable, but it was hard not to notice the giant raised pipeline spanning for miles at the top edge of the beach. The pipeline was part of a beach renourishment project, designed to replace sand and expand the beach after years of erosion and sea-level rise has caused much of the natural beach to disappear. According to Rick Caitlin, former chairman of the North Carolina Beach, Inlet and Waterway Association, beach renourishment takes place every four years as an effort to overcoming the natural shifting of beach sand and protect the beach communities that so many of us take for granted each summer. “We move it, and nature moves it back, and we move it, and nature moves it back,” Caitlin said regarding the ongoing requirement for beach renourishment.

Wrightsville Beach is hardly unique in this trend of beach erosion. A recent study by the US Geological Survey found that 68 percent of the beaches in New England and the mid-Atlantic are eroding, and some barrier beaches in Louisiana are eroding at a rate of 65 feet per year. Much of this erosion has to do with rising sea levels caused by climate change. Duke University beach expert Orrin Pilkey expects sea levels to rise approximately 3 feet by 2100. And if sea levels rise even just one foot from today’s levels, the shoreline in northeastern North Carolina, for example, could be pushed back 5 or 6 miles, he says.

Recognizing this threat, beach communities across the country are beginning to take proactive measures to try to prevent the loss of their beaches, with varied success. Although environmentally controversial and costly (the 2014 Wrightsville Beach renourishment project cost $9 million), beach renourishment along the North Carolina coast has been relatively successful in protecting the beaches in their current state. Other areas have had more difficulties. Officials who run the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia are slowly losing the battle against rising sea levels. The stunning mile-long beach on Chincoteague Island has been disappearing at a rate of 10 to 22 feet a year, and the access road and parking lot have been rebuilt five times in the past decade, at a total cost of $3 million dollars. Officials suggested in 2010 that the beach be moved to a safer spot, the parking lot reduced, and visitors shuttled in. Community residents rejected the suggestion, however, and demanded that the government continue to rebuild destroyed coastline as opposed to retreating to a more sustainable location.

There are many that question this logic and its financial consequences. Beaches are a huge tourist draw, but communities are spending excessive amounts of money to protect them. Just in 2014, Atlantic City spent $18 million to beef up its 5 miles of shoreline. Port Saint Joe, Florida undertook a $22 million replenishment project this year, but a quarter of the sand is already gone, and replacing it is expected to cost $15 million. A 1998 study estimated that the annual cost of East Coast beach renourishment is $100 million/year, although that number has most likely increased in the past 15 years.

As sea levels rise and heavy precipitation storms become stronger and more common along the East Coast, the reality of beach erosion will only worsen in the coming decades. Beach communities will face a tough choice between continuing to fight the path of nature, or resigning and shifting beaches to more protected locations. The first option will require governments to bear multi-millions of dollars’ worth of restoration costs each year, but the second will mean uprooting entire communities and popular beach destinations to unknown and potentially less attractive locations. Beaches are becoming one of the first battlegrounds where the United States faces the impacts of an already changing climate, and the decisions that we make regarding their preservation will set the stage for whether we choose to develop sustainably, or focus on fighting nature to maintain the status quo.

Image credit, Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons.

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