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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beach Erosion

Air Date: Week of

Natural erosion along with human development is threatening 70-90 percent of the beaches on American shores. New York Times Science Editor Cornelia Dean, author of the book Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches, discusses these threats to America's coastline with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's summer. It's hot. And for many Americans, a soft, sandy, windblown beach provides one of the few escapes from oppressive heat. But scientists say erosion, coupled with intensive coastal development, has left more than 70% of US beaches threatened with disappearing entirely. Cornelia Dean, science editor of the New York Times, explains in her new book, Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches, how sand moves along shores and how human intervention is disrupting this natural process.

DEAN: The beach has a little self-defense system that it operates when it's threatened by a storm. And what happens is, the waves cut into the dunes and take sand out of the dunes, and move it offshore, where it forms sand bars. And the sand bars break the waves, weakening them, and thereby protecting the beach from the force of the waves. And then when the storm ends and gentle weather comes back, the gentle waves pick up the sand from the sand bars, carry it up onto the beach, and the wind blows it back up into the dunes.

CURWOOD: You say the beach has this natural, almost living process. What happens when you try to interfere with this process?

DEAN: When people build walls, they block the exchange between dune and sand bar. And then the beach, especially if the beach is in an erosion area, and normally people don't build sea walls unless they're in an erosion area, the wall makes a fixed line on the beach. The beach can't move any more. It's pinned down by the wall. The water is moving in, it hits the wall, and the beach is drowned. The beach is gone.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

DEAN: The other thing that people don't realize is that sand moves parallel to the coast and currents. There are places where it predominantly moves in one direction. There are places where it moves back and forth depending on the weather. But when you build something like a groin or a jetty or a breakwater or something like that to trap sand, you trap sand in front of your beach, wherever you've put that little bit of armor, but it prevents the sand from moving further down the coast and you're in a sense starving the beach downdrift.

CURWOOD: Where in particular have people really made a mess of trying to preserve the beach? By trying to protect it they're actually ruining it. Any places come to mind?

DEAN: Well, New Jersey is probably the worst example. New Jersey's coast is very heavily armored. It has groins and jetties and sea walls, and in all of those places erosion continues to be a terrible problem. They are now replenishing beaches by pumping sand up on them. Virtually as soon as it arrives, it washes away. They're in what seems to me to be a losing battle with the ocean to preserve their beaches. And the steps that they are taking, in many cases, degrade the beaches.

CURWOOD: How much money do you think is being spent to pump those thousands of tons of sand onto those beaches. What is this, Sandy Point, in that area?

DEAN: Sandy Hook.

CURWOOD: Sandy Hook, I'm sorry.

DEAN: And south of it is Monmouth Beach and Seabright. But the whole coast of New Jersey has been replenished, you know, again and again, and is constantly in need of it. And in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, most of it from the Federal treasury.

CURWOOD: Well, what's the best way, in your view, to prevent this problem? To prevent the loss of the beaches, the coastline?

DEAN: Actually, it's interesting. When I first started working on the book years ago, I attended a talk by a professor from Tulane University. And he said we should just buy the coast. And he meant it as a joke, because clearly it's impossible to buy the coast. The coast is the most expensive real estate anywhere. But in fact, lots of the coast has been bought, and there are people who are buying more and more of it. And sort of taking it out of circulation, so to speak. The National Seashore Program, the Federal government has bought stretches of coast. The Nature Conservancy has bought stretches of coast. And now there are starting to pop up coastal land trusts. And also things called land banks. And the way land banks work is, every real estate transaction is assessed a fee, and that money goes into the land bank, and the land bank uses it to buy undeveloped land and just preserve it.

CURWOOD: Looking ahead 25, 50 years, what's the future of America's beaches?

DEAN: I hope that preservation efforts will increase, and that more of the pristine beaches that remain will be preserved. I hope that communities that have big beach economies or big tourism economies will recognize that their well-being depends more on the health of the beach than on the sites of their restaurants or motels or condos or what have you, and they will encourage those installations to move inland, away from the beach. Not even necessarily a great distance, but just well away from the active beach. And I think if people knew what was at stake, that's what they would want to have happen.

CURWOOD: Cornelia Dean's new book is called Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches. Thanks for taking the time with us today.

DEAN: Thank you very much for inviting me.



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