Around every strip of sandy beach, you can find signs of a marsh of some kind—a salt marsh, a fresh water marsh or one of the infinite variations of brackish marshes. Something in us does not love a marsh, but everything in us loves the sandy strand. Was there ever a teenager who did not thrill to the illicit pleasure of parading up and down on a shimmering summer beach in a socially-sanctioned state of undress? Is there not a teenager lurking somewhere inside every one of our sagging middle-aged bodies?
But who loves a marsh—a stinking, mosquito-infested wasteland where tightly packed sediments starved of oxygen hint of rotten eggs, and where little standing pools of water offer the perfect habitat for a stunning variety of winged furies. Because we crowd around sandy beaches in such incredible numbers, where the development “envelope” quickly runs out, and because marshes are so obviously waste lands, we have the perfect solution to our real estate dilemma—just fill in the marshes and build more houses on the “reclaimed” land. What we did not realize, however, is that these waste lands are the shock absorbers or buffer zones in the coastal system that absorb the powerful blows from the storms that nature serves up.
Instead, we have engineered ever more expensive human systems to protect our coastlines. When the sand shifts around in its annual migration on or offshore, or onto someone else’s beach, we harden the beaches. We build seawalls, groins and jetties to interrupt the movement of these infinite numbers of rolling grains of sand. If the sand ends up offshore, we expect the government to pump sand back onto our beaches for our summer idylls. And if a storm periodically slams ashore and upsets our little universe, we can then pass laws that require the government to help us rebuild our dream houses through publicly-subsidized flood insurance policies. Like so many successful deals, there’s something in it for everybody—realtors, builders, insurance agents, gift shop owners, motel operators and tax collectors all benefit. It works for everybody!
Until it does not.
To begin with, nearly every coastal geologist in the country knows that you cannot hope to control the movement and migration of beaches. Sooner or later, as they have been telling us for half a century, our beaches will go where they will go. The best we can do is fight a rear guard action and hope the chair in our seaside living room is still there when the music stops.
I spent the duration of Sandy’s Atlantic visitation on an island. In the immediate run-up of her arrival, the island was eerily quiet; few people were out and about; shops and restaurants were all closed; not a vehicle was in sight. The island was reminded of its essential “islandness” when all the bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to the universe were closed and/or flooded and city dwellers were reminded that, even in the most hardened stone, marble and brick-scape in the world, at the end of the day, you are fundamentally an islander. Especially at the end of a day, when all the electric grid substations carefully located underground and the generators in the flooded basements of high rises have long since arced into instant and abject darkness.
As inconvenient and tragic as Sandy was for many Manhattan islanders, it was ten times worse for islanders at the outer fringing edges of Manhattan. Islanders on Breezy Point, Far Rockaway,Staten Island and all along the once picturesque seaside towns built on the barrier islands of New Jersey’s shore experienced the essential nature of her heartless fury. Relentless, pitiless death and destruction.
As much as any of us might initially admire the grit of those standing amid the wreckage of their lives as they voice their determination to rebuild, we should also recognize that we are hearing a repetition of the oldest trope in a Greek tragedy. Hubris, the Greek term for the expression of extreme pride and arrogance, is when the hero shakes his fist at the gods and insists he is beyond their power.
It is important to recognize that we have witnessed something different in Sandy. No scientist will (yet) say that Sandy is a creature of climate change. Climate is, by definition, what happens over a longer period of time than a single storm. A decade, say. But as one acute observer noted, no doctor would agree that a particular home run hit by Barry Bonds was the result of steroid use, but doctors and fans alike recognize that athletes who take steroids will hit more home runs.
The surface waters of the Atlantic seaboard this summer were about two degrees warmer than average. What science tells us is that a warmer ocean will have two effects on storms that form over the ocean. First, a warmer ocean will hold more moisture and second, warmer ocean waters increase the latent energy in storms, which will thus on average be more intense than if they form over cooler waters. We can therefore expect hurricanes to be both more intense and to produce more prodigious volumes of rain.
If we know that hurricanes that reach land will be more harmful, we cannot yet know whether there will be more hurricanes. Last year there were 19 named tropical storms in the Atlantic, compared to an average of seven or eight over the past several decades. This year there were also 19 tropical storms with a few weeks yet to go in hurricane season. We also know that sea level is rising—everywhere—from the incontrovertible fact of thermal expansion of warmer ocean waters. It may not seem like much, but slight rises in sea level combined with storm driven waves create catastrophic sea surges for which few coastlines have been designed to absorb or deflect.
In the aftermath of Sandy, the looming question is whether we will we do something different this time? Will we express our hubris again and continue to socialize the costs of rebuilding tragically broken dreams through tax-supported flood insurance subsidies? This is one of the first questions Sandy begs us to answer.
We need a new line in the sand, which is neither straight, nor hard and fast, but conforms to Mother Nature’s sinuous but powerful new whims.
Philip Conkling is president and founder of the Island Institute based in Rockland, Maine.