On Superstorms and Sea Level: Interview With the Man Who Saw it Coming

categories: Cocktail Hour

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Photo for OnEarth by Coke Whitworth

Thought it was the right time to break this out….

For decades, Orrin Pilkey has warned that our coasts are in a state of constant flux, and that the relentless pace of coastal development is a recipe for disaster. Pilkey, James B. Duke professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, has made both friends and enemies as a result of his unabashed mix of science and advocacy. He was famously at the center of the controversy over what to do about the ocean-threatened Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina. When the lighthouse was finally moved inland, the decision was seen by many as a vindication of his coastal philosophy, which can be described in a single word: retreat. It’s a word that irks realtors and other proponents of development, as do the gusto and glee with which Pilkey puts forth his opinions.

Now, with sea-level rise from global warming an accepted fact and the idea of increasingly intense storms gaining credence, Pilkey’s warnings sound prophetic. David Gessner spoke with him at North Topsail Beach, North Carolina, a place that epitomizes Pilkey’s fears about coastal development.

From where we are standing right now, we can see dozens of houses that have either fallen into the ocean or are about to fall. Are you suggesting that we do nothing to save them?

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. What we are looking at here is the future of the American shoreline. While this is personally tragic for a few homeowners, it is overall a beautiful sight. The cost of trying to save a few threatened homes is tremendous, and the environmental cost is even greater. To save these houses you would ultimately have to put up a seawall, and as sea level rises and the waves get bigger, you would have to build a bigger one. By then the beach would be gone and you wouldn’t have anything worth saving. 

But who gets to decide whether to preserve the beach or protect the homes?

The impetus has to come from the federal government. For instance, Ocracoke Island off North Carolina — which was just voted America’s top beach — was part of the first national seashore created in the 1930s. You can bet the people who had their homes and land taken away or were told they could not develop there were not happy. But now, a few generations later, their great-grandchildren are reaping the benefits of a beautiful and healthy island. 

You have fought passionately against the arming of our beaches with jetties, groins [a type of breakwater], and seawalls. Where did this passion come from? 

I began as a deep-sea sedimentologist and I spent a lot of time at sea. In the late 1960s I was working on a ship sampling water off Cape Hatteras, and in our downtime I played a lot of hearts with a scientist who worked for the Smithsonian. He told me about the state of our beaches, about how we were increasingly building seawalls and groins. He told me about it as a curiosity, but when I learned more I became indignant. Then my parents went through Hurricane Camille in 1969, and I went down to Mississippi to help bail them out. My father and I were so impressed by what a hurricane could do that we decided to write a book, How to Live With an Island. At the time there was a real vacuum of knowledge about the coast.

One of the first places you studied was New Jersey. What impact did that have on you?

New Jersey was really a big science experiment. They began to build walls to protect their beaches 150 years ago. Thanks to New Jersey we learned that any sort of hard stabilization is very damaging to the beach. We also learned that it sometimes takes decades for that damage to occur. And finally, we learned that the damage occurs just by building something fixed alongside the beach — a highway, for instance. The problem is that beaches are eroding and moving. The beach tends to move toward that fixed thing and get narrower and narrower until it disappears altogether.   

After studying seawalls for a while, I began advocating against building them, saying we should simply move back from the coast and let buildings fall in. Of course the Army Corps of Engineers, who built many of the walls, thought this was quite unmanly. They didn’t like words like retreat.

Much of your work focuses on the barrier islands that run down the East Coast of the United States. How do they deal with hurricanes and other storms? They seem so fragile.

As storms increase in intensity, barrier islands will continue to serve as our front lines. They are actually fairly well built for this role. They are in some ways the most dynamic natural environment on earth. They maintain themselves as they move back. A storm will hit them and then sand will flow over them and replenish their back side, which is usually marsh. In this way they are always on the move, migrating shoreward. People fear storms, but barrier islands need storms to live. Storms are the way the islands migrate and the way they build elevation. If sand is not pushed across an island by storms, then the island drowns. The trouble comes when we start building roads and houses on these moving islands. We draw a line in the sand. But the sand itself is moving.

Your next book will focus on rising sea level. How dramatically is that going to affect our coasts?

The latest U.N. report says we can expect a sea level rise of up to two feet over the next century. But that’s very conservative. All indications are that the ice melt in Antarctica and Greenland is increasing rapidly. A more realistic assessment comes from Rhode Island, a state that obviously has a lot invested in getting the estimate right. They’re assuming that the rise is going to be between three and six feet. If that happens, we aren’t going to be worrying about a few beach houses. We are going to be worrying about Manhattan and Boston. 

Those predictions are based on mathematical models, yet you are critical of such models in general. It seems to me that this is a philosophy that goes with living by the coast, where things can change dramatically — and often unpredictably — from day to day.

What I am questioning is a false sense of certainty. It’s the models, yes, but also how you use the models. I question those who put too much faith in them. Look at the Corps of Engineers, who have done most of the work in trying to protect our coasts. They use models a lot, but when the models don’t work they will say, “Well, there was a big storm. Totally unexpected.” But the unexpected is part of the life of our coasts.

Many scientists stay out of the public arena, but that isn’t the route you’ve chosen.

I call myself a scientific advocate. My job is not just science, but to say, “If you build high-rises on this island, you will be in trouble in two or three generations.” I’m comfortable with these dual roles, but many scientists aren’t. When I first started doing this, over 40 years ago, everyone who stepped outside the hallowed halls of science was criticized. Things have changed, but we still see a lot of what Jim Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, calls scientific reticence. If we step outside and deal with the public and say, “This is going to happen,” we open ourselves to criticism. The problem is that you do have to simplify things to some extent if you are going to communicate with the public. 

After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush suggested that no one could have predicted what was going to happen. Of course, many scientists had done just that. Are we now setting ourselves up for the next Katrina?  

Each storm is different, but in a general sense we are going to have a lot more Katrinas because we have so much more development close to the shore. We are ripe here in North Carolina, but Florida is an even more obvious target. Florida has long been an outlaw state with regard to coastal management. When you put high-rises right next to the beach, it is just a question of when, not if, disaster will strike. There’s a major disaster waiting to happen in the Florida Keys, because you won’t be able to evacuate everyone.

But it seems to be hard to get people to change their behavior. They keep moving to the coast.

What is remarkable so far is how storms barely slow down coastal development. I was down in Florida in 1964 after Hurricane Donna hit, and people said, “Well, I guess this is the end of the Keys.” Of course, it wasn’t. When the North Carolina coast started being developed heavily, we coastal scientists used to say, “What we need is a big storm.” We figured that people would see what a storm could do and heed its warning. But then Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989, and we learned that people start building as soon as the wind dies down. Hurricanes have actually become giant urban renewal projects. The buildings come back bigger than before, but of course the site that they’re being built on is even more dangerous. It is a form of societal madness. I can’t put it any more strongly.

  1. Tommy writes:

    I felt the same way about the Loma Prieta Earthquake in Northern California in 1989. I thought it was the best thing that it struck just as a world series game was starting, so people all over the country, not just intellectuals, but sports fans, would hide in their closets. I hoped this might slow development. And it may have, but development is relentless; it’s like the ocean.

    The economic crash slowed development, but our economy is based on growth. One of the ways we measure growth is with “housing starts”. All those housing starts that didn’t start near you, because of the economy – will. And as for the remaining open spaces between the areas that are developed – how many of you can go back to the area you grew up in, and still walk in the same woods near your house you did as a child? I know I can’t.

    The serious questions you’re raising about rebuilding the coast, are being asked all over America – in the flood plain.