Who knows what rich brew of psychological, spiritual and sexual urges draw humankind to shorelines in ever increasing numbers? But it is a fact that over half of the population of the U.S. now lives in the coastal zone—a 30 percent increase over the past three decades—and more of us are moving to America’s shores every year. And every year, we bring more with us—bigger houses, supported by wider roads, higher bridges, longer power lines, improved sewer systems and water mains. No coastline has been immune to this massive migration pressure during the past half century, but one protean landscape above all others has born the brunt of our feverish desires—barrier islands.

Who among us is not deeply moved by the endless succession of wave-polished shells washed up at our feet with each receding tide; or has not been captivated by the wingy antics of shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl performing their timeless beach rituals seemingly for our amusement. Who is not entranced by the sight of little knots of children earnestly building sandy monuments of impermanence at our feet? Even teenagers, who are studiously unimpressed by almost everything, are not unmoved by the steady spectacle of bronzed pectorals and bikinied nubiles moving along the beach just out of reach. There is even a new Olympic sport celebrating the jump and punch of beach volleyball. Maybe life is a beach, just as the T-shirt proclaims.

The barrier islands of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, however, are the most impermanent landscape in creation. Not for nothing do we call them barrier islands—their sandy sinuous berms, dunes, inlets and marshes act as a system to buffer and channel relentless storm seas that Mother Nature regularly churns up and hurls toward the shifting shoreline. Barrier islands migrate back and forth either towards land or towards the sea, almost as if they had a mind of their own, depending on whether sea level is rising or falling—or the land is lifting or subsiding.

Our fascination with barrier islands began innocently enough when Americans started coming to them in ever-larger numbers after World War II. From marshy tidal creeks, we rowed across a bay or a sound to build small shacks up in the dunes next to those of fishermen and other make-do islanders, who knew better than to fight Mother Nature. Land was cheap, the natives were friendly and the scenery was spectacular. We built bonfires on the beach, cooked corn and clams on their embers, drew water from the sandy aquifers underfoot. And it was enough. Well, almost. 

It is so beautiful and peaceful here, we said, why not have a view of the ocean all the time. Let’s build a bigger house on top of the dune—or better yet—let’s level the dune altogether to improve the view while we build a really special place. And let’s bring our friends. After all, that nice fellow who sold us our lot said the town fathers want to build a causeway across the marsh and bay, which means we can bring in water and power from the mainland. Come to think of it, maybe we should see if our fishermen and island neighbors want to sell their land. This could be big.

And is was big—all up and down the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts starting in the 1940s and lasting right up through the present. From Cape Cod all the way to Florida and around to Galveston, Texas, there are now hundreds upon hundreds of barrier islands that have ceased being islands and have become the most prestigious and expensive real estate extensions of the mainland, with high rise condominiums on the most urbanized islands.

The trouble is the damn sand won’t stay put; it keeps migrating on and off the beach or up and down along the shore onto someone else’s beach. And during the last storm, the surge undercut the foundation so we are going to have to build as seawall to protect our investment. Good thing Congress passed the National Flood Insurance Act in 1968 to help out with the cost. But we need the Army Corps of Engineers to accelerate the beach replenishment project before the next tourist season or there are going to be a lot of unhappy campers here come June. And I heard the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster aid account needs to be replenished not just because of Hurricane Sandy, but also because of all the left over costs from Katrina and Irene and a bunch of other storms that have not been paid. Maybe this will be the last bad year for ocean storms, at least for a while.

But now there’s something else you won’t believe. It seems that Sandy has wrecked so many houses and property on the barrier islands of Long Island and all the way down the Jersey Shore’s islands, that the governor of New York has started to say this damage is about climate change and we can’t keep pouring money into rebuilding this entire infrastructure after every storm. And now some scientists are saying we shouldn’t even rebuild all the roads and bridges on the islands. Imagine what all those communities would look like if they had to live with without piping all the water in; or if we had to use ferries to get there. What about our tourist economy? It would be the end of island life as we know it, that’s for sure. Damn fools!

Life is a beach.

Philip Conkling is president and founder of the Island Institute based in Rockland, Maine.