Sea Levels Threaten Coastal Towns (Part One)

  • The boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. Before beach replenishment, you could get your feet wet standing underneath the boardwalk. Now, as you can see, the water is 200 feet away. (Photo by Tamara Keith)

It’s beach weather – and along the mid-Atlantic one of the most popular beaches is Ocean
City, Maryland. For years, engineers have been battling back the ocean to save the beach
and the town. And as Tamara Keith reports, that fight is only going to get tougher and
more expensive if predictions of sea level rise from climate change become a reality:

Transcript

It’s beach weather – and along the mid-Atlantic one of the most popular beaches is Ocean
City, Maryland. For years, engineers have been battling back the ocean to save the beach
and the town. And as Tamara Keith reports, that fight is only going to get tougher and
more expensive if predictions of sea level rise from climate change become a reality:

When the sea level rises, Ocean City feels it. It’s on the front lines – a barrier island on
the edge of the Atlantic.

(sounds of water)

Terry McGean is the city engineer for a town he describes as a working class resort.

“Our industry is tourism, and the real reason people come here is the beach.”

But in the 1980s, that beach was reduced to a narrow strip. Not so today, all thanks to a
massive, and expensive, beach replenishment project. In 1991 countless tons of sand
were brought in, dunes were built. But that wasn’t the end of it.

To keep up with erosion, McGean says the beach here at Ocean City has already been re-
nourished 4 times.

“Approximately every 4 years we’re doing a re-nourishment project. To give you an idea
of the scale, that’s 100,000 truck loads of material that we’ll put on here. Though it
doesn’t actually come on a truck? No. It’s pumped in a dredge from out in the ocean.”

It is a constant fight, because the waves keep coming, keep pulling the sand back out to
sea. Scientists say this is partially just normal erosion. But some of it at least can be
blamed on global climate change and sea level rise. Over time, they say, the share of the
problem caused by climate change will grow.

“If you hadn’t done the beach replenishment do you have any sense of what this would
look like right now. There probably would have been no public beach left in many of
these areas.”

So far fending off the sea has cost $90-million, split amongst local, state and federal tax
dollars. But engineers estimate some $240-million in storm damage has been prevented.

“Holding back the sea is an economic proposition. If you’re willing to spend the money,
the sand exists to elevate any given barrier island.”

Jim Titus is the project manager for sea level rise at the Environmental Protection
Agency. And he’s been sounding the alarm about climate change for years. And he says
policy makers and the public will eventually have to decide which beaches, which
communities are worth saving.

“The challenge for communities like Ocean City is to persuade everyone else that they
are one of those cities that are too important to give up. And then to get their residents to
cooperate in doing what it takes to do to gradually elevate the entire community with a
rising sea.”

But if you think in geologic time, like University of Maryland professor Michael Kearney
does, there isn’t a whole lot of hope for barrier islands like Ocean City.

“It’s essentially a pile of sand. There’s really nothing permanent about it.”

Kearney studies coastal processes.

“The long term prospect of any barrier surviving the projected rates of sea level rise, even
at the moderate rates – the so-called moderate rates, that the IPCC predicted is pretty
slim.”

Ocean City engineer Terry McGean just isn’t buying it. He thinks Ocean City can survive
sea level rise.

“I think that we can design towards it and we can probably build towards it and with
responsible actions we can live with it.”

As long as there’s enough sand and money to keep it going.

For The Environment Report, I’m Tamara Keith.

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Ten Threats: Protecting Crumbling Shorelines

  • This is a private beach Charles Shabica developed for a homeowner on Chicago's North Shore. The grasses in the background are native to the area and help stabilize the beach and bluff. They also help trap and filter runoff. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is changing how the shoreline interacts with
the lakes. Humans like to improve on nature. For example, we like to build things to
protect our property. Protecting a home from forces like wind, water and soil erosion can
be a tough job and expensive sometimes. But if your property is along the shore of a
Great Lake, it can be especially difficult. Reporter Shawn Allee looks at one engineer’s
effort to protect lakefront property and nature:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you reports from the series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ Our
guide in the series is Lester Graham. He says the next report looks at protecting property
and protecting nature:


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is changing how the shoreline interacts with
the lakes. Humans like to improve on nature. For example, we like to build things to
protect our property. Protecting a home from forces like wind, water and soil erosion can
be a tough job and expensive sometimes. But if your property is along the shore of a
Great Lake, it can be especially difficult. Reporter Shawn Allee looks at one engineer’s
effort to protect lakefront property and nature:


Great Lakes shorelines naturally change over time. Beaches erode. Dunes shift.
Sometimes, even the rockiest bluffs collapse.


That’s OK for nature, but maybe not for a house sitting on top of it. So it’s no wonder
that landowners try to stabilize their shorelines. To do that, they sometimes build walls
of steel or concrete to block incoming waves. It’s a tricky process. If the walls are too
short, they won’t stop erosion. But if they’re too long, they trap sand that moves
naturally along the lakeshore.


When nearby beaches can’t get sand, they degrade into muddy or rocky messes.


Charles Shabica is a coastal engineer. He’s been working at the problem for decades
now.


“My dream is to see the shores of the Great Lakes ultimately stabilized, but in a good
way and not a bad way where you’re causing problems.”


Shabica takes me to a small private beach north of Chicago. He engineered it to keep the
shoreline intact. The keys to that are two piles of rock that jut out into the lake.


The piles are just the right size – big enough to protect the shore, but small enough to let
some sand pass by. There’re other elements to the design as well.


Tall, blue-green grasses line the beach’s perimeter.


“Not only do waves tend to move sand around, but wind is also really an important agent,
too. So the beach grass and dune grass tends to stabilize the sand. And what will happen
is, you can see these things are seeding now, wind will blow the seeds and pretty soon
you get that stuff growing all over the place.”


A lot of homeowners and city planners applaud Shabica’s work. But not everyone does.


Some environmental groups say, once a landowner builds a wall or rock formation,
others have to follow suit, just to preserve their own sandy shoreline.


The environmental groups’ alternative? Keep development farther away from shorelines
and allow more natural erosion.


But that hands-off approach is not likely to happen. The majority of Great Lakes
shoreline is privately owned. And in many states, landowners often prevail in court when
they try to protect their investments.


Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute says the question isn’t whether to
build near the shore, but how to do it.


He says, in the past, landowners tried to get off cheap. They didn’t pay for quality
construction or get expert advice on local geological systems.


“If you don’t pay a lot of attention to these systems, it’s gonna cost you a lot of money.
And if you build inappropriate structures or inappropriate recreational facilities, you’re
going to either be paying a lot of money to sustain them or you’re gonna lose them.”


A lot of coastal geologists agree that, for much of the Great Lakes coast, private
shoreline protection efforts – even the bad ones – are here to stay.


In urban or suburban areas, housing developments near the shore often include a buffer or
wall.


Michael Chrzastowski is with Illinois’ Geological Survey. He says, in these cases, the
shore can look natural…


“But it’s going to be a managed, engineered facility, because wherever you are on the
shore, you’re influenced by some other construction or historical development along the
shore that’s altered the processes where you are.”


That’s definitely the case along highly-developed, urban coastlines, such as Illinois’.
Other parts of the region are catching up, though.


“What’s going to happen is, other places along the great lakes as they become more
developed and they become more urbanized, they’re going to use Illinois as a model.”


That could bring more projects like Charles Shabica’s little beach. Shabica says that’s
not necessarily a bad thing.


It’s just a way to come to terms with our presence along the lakes.


“Human beings are here to stay. It’s our responsibility I think to make our environment
better for us, but not at the expense of the biological community, and your neighbors.”


That sounds reasonable enough. But it will ultimately mean the vast, natural coastlines of
the Great Lakes will be engineered, one beach at a time.


For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.

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Ten Threats: Concrete Shores

  • Hardened shorelines protect buildings, roads, and homes, but many developers say a more natural method should be used. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Along many Great Lakes cities, long concrete or stone seawalls protect property against
wind and wave erosion. It’s a hardening of the shoreline that some people say is
necessary to protect expensive real estate. But some scientists and environmentalists say
it’s part of one of the ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. They’re worried those concrete
seawalls are not only hurting the environment… in the long run, they’re hurting the
economy. Lynette Kalsnes has this report:

Transcript

In our series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes,’ we’ve been looking at how humans make
changes that affect the health of the lakes. Lester Graham is our guide through the series.
He says the next report shows how far we’ll go to try to manage nature:


Along many Great Lakes cities, long concrete or stone seawalls protect property against
wind and wave erosion. It’s a hardening of the shoreline that some people say is
necessary to protect expensive real estate. But some scientists and environmentalists say
it’s part of one of the ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. They’re worried those concrete
seawalls are not only hurting the environment… in the long run, they’re hurting the
economy. Lynette Kalsnes has this report:


(waves lapping against concrete wall)


In the middle of a miles-long concrete shoreline, there’s a tiny beach. Steve Forman points
toward a small bluff at the base of a tree. The professor of earth and environmental sciences at
the University of Illinois at Chicago says the sand, grass and dunes help soften the impact of
waves and rain.


“This kind of relief is what you’d see in many natural coastlines, a coastline like this can
accommodate change better than one that’s been concreted up.”


Just feet away, the concrete picks back up, like a stark white runway that bisects the land and the
lake. Concrete revetments like these in Chicago are a familiar sight in urban areas across the
Great Lakes.


Roy Deda is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps manages much of the
construction on public shorelines. Deda says hardening the shore is one way of protecting against
erosion.


“Where hardening of the shoreline is important and used, is where you have an existing
community in an urban area like Chicago. You have a lot of development in place already, and
basically you’re protecting what’s been built over a long history.”


Deda says it protects property. But scientist Steve Forman says using concrete walls comes at a
cost: the destruction of natural systems that are often helpful.


Forman says wetlands and stream valleys normally act like a sponge to absorb high lake levels.
They also release some of the water back when lake levels are low. Forman says concrete can’t
buffer those fluctuations.


“It makes the extremes potentially even more extreme in terms of lake level variations.”


So, when there’s a rainstorm, Forman says the water runs off the concrete quickly… instead of
being absorbed across sand or wetlands slowly.


He says the same thing is true for the water flowing into the lakes from rivers.


Discharge into rivers can go up by 50 times the amount it would if natural areas buffered the
rivers.


“Any time we change the landscape from its natural components, we also change the plumbing of
the Great Lakes. We change the way water is routed in and around and through the Great Lakes
as well.”


It’s not only rushing rivers and lake levels that cause problems.


When the shoreline is hardened… the wildlife and organisms that once lived there disappear.


Cameron Davis is with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. He says many rare species live in that
narrow ribbon where the land meets the water.


“When we harden the shorelines, we basically sterilize them in a lot of ways, because we’ve not
providing the kinds of habitat and cover that we need for many of them.”


And beyond the effect on wildlife… hardening the shoreline can also be a bad economic decision.


Steve Forman says permanent structures built near the shores are not as stable as they might seem
when lake levels are high and winter storms cause big waves that erode the land underneath them.


“When the lake levels go up, the erosion rates are just phenomenal…what you see are hanging
stairs everywhere, instead of stairs that take you down to the beach, they’re hanging over the lake,
basically.”


That’s why scientists and planners are taking action. The Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Cameron
Davis is calling on planners to balance protecting the shoreline … with preserving ecology.


“Frankly I don’t think shoreline planning across the region is that great. There really is no single
unifying policy we’re all using to guide what our shorelines ought to look like.”


He’s hoping that some cities will experiment with restoring natural areas along their shorelines…
He says we need to see if in the long run, nature can do a better job of protecting the shores.


For the GLRC, I’m Lynette Kalsnes.

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