Geologists Orrin Pilkey and J. Andrew G. Cooper are the authors of The Last Beach, an urgent call to save the world’s beaches while there is still time. Orrin Pilkey will be reading from the book at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC on Tuesday, November 11 at 7 p.m. The Last Beach is this week’s Book of the Week in the Times Higher Education.
Your book deals with several threats to beaches. Which of these is the most critical?
People impact beaches in many different ways, but broadly speaking we have divided the threats into those that devalue or restrict our use of beaches (litter, pollution, driving, oil spills) and those that threaten the very existence of the beach (beach mining and coastal engineering). The former are often the most obvious and most of us will have experienced them as mild or extreme inconveniences, such as a beach closure or a ban on swimming. The latter, however, cause the wholesale destruction of the beach. Mining sand from a beach is an obvious recipe for disaster, but the effects of building a wall to protect a house threatened by erosion are not immediately obvious to many people. Seawalls and other structures that hold a beach in place destroy the beach. Erosion in the absence of human intervention is simply a natural part of a beach’s survival strategy. The ability to change shape during storms and then recover is key to survival of beaches and allows them to absorb much of what the sea throws at it. In trying to hold a dynamic feature like a beach in place, we are sowing the seeds of its destruction.
It seems hard to reconcile society’s love of beaches with the damage that we inflict upon them. How do you explain this?
In part this is simply down to ignorance. We have found that few citizens anywhere in the world are aware of the detrimental effects of engineering the shoreline. The effects often become evident over several years or decades, and it is much easier for people to envisage the threat to property rather than the threat to a beach. Their self-interest in protecting their property is the overwhelming influence. The proponents (engineers and politicians) of coastal defenses do, however, know the impacts the defenses will have on the beach and yet they still promote them.
The book includes some horror stories on pollution, particularly in the sand. Is it really that risky to dig in the sand?
Of course not all beaches suffer the same degree of pollution, but the stories we report indicate the real risks that exist from pollution on beaches. Most of us are aware of the potential for polluted waters, but the recognition of dangerous contaminants within the sand is relatively new and is certainly far from the public consciousness. Importantly, testing of the water is done, but few public authorities test for pollution in the beach sand. Consequently we don’t know the risk in most cases. We fully expect that as sand testing becomes more widespread, we will be in for some nasty surprises. It may well be hazardous to your health to be buried in the sand, build sandcastles, or even to walk barefoot on it.
There is a lot of concern about the threat of global sea level rise and its effect on beaches. What can we do to protect them?
The belief that sea level rise threatens beaches is a widespread misconception that is both erroneous and dangerous. Sea level rise poses no threat whatsoever to a natural beach. Many of the world’s beaches have survived more than 100 meters of sea level rise since the end of the last Ice Age. Changing their shape and migrating landwards are the ways that beaches survive. However, when we try to hold them in place by building walls or pumping sand onto them we create insurmountable problems. Unable to move landwards, they become narrower and steeper, losing their value as natural defenses and ultimately disappearing. Pumping sand onto them isn’t the answer since it locks us into a never-ending cycle of beach replenishment. Into the bargain, it also destroys the ecosystem of the beach and from wherever the sand was dredged (offshore).
What is the worst-case scenario?
Florida takes that honor. There are hundreds of miles of high-rise-lined shorelines on both the east and west coasts of Florida. It is economically impossible to move them off the islands and, in any event, there is no place to move them. Seawall construction is increasing rapidly on these coasts and as sea level continues to rise, beach replenishment will become prohibitively costly. Eventually Florida’s beach communities will become like castles of old, completely surrounded by massive high walls with no beach in front of them.
What needs to change if we are to avoid the almost apocalyptic scenarios you describe?
At the moment, the approach to beaches is influenced by ignorance on the one hand and self-interest on the other. Raising awareness of how beaches work and how our activities impact them will help address the first issue. The second is more intractable. Beach users are far more numerous than beachfront property owners. This enormous silent majority, who undoubtedly will favor beach preservation over property, have less personal involvement in a beach and consequently their voices are less frequently heard than those of beachfront property owners and the engineers standing ready to oblige them with sea defenses. There are alternatives to defense. We can retreat from the shoreline and give beaches the space they need to survive. In the long run this will prove to be the only economical and environmental solution that benefits society as a whole.