Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

U.S. Coastal Management: In desperate need of change

Sometimes I wish events like these ONLY happened in science fiction movies and natural disaster blockbusters:

  • People stranded on their rooftops looking up at the helicopter, struggling to battle the fierce wind and rain to rescue two children and their pregnant mother from a dramatic flood that has swallowed their neighborhood.
  • The hot and scorching sun creates life-threatening climatic and sanitary conditions in a large metropolis void of electricity, running water, and intact buildings.  To leave this area would be even more dangerous, due to massive flooding and toxic pollutants.
  • Animals of all shapes and sizes are covered in oil.  Pelicans and sea lions lay dead and dying across a trash-littered, oil-slicked beach.  In a nearby pond, frogs with unusual birth defects, including three legs or a undeveloped body straggle around in a muddy puddle filled with invasive and non-native grasses that are able to tolerate the high amounts of pollution and sea water disturbances.
  • As usual, the government is criticized for their underestimated death tolls after an unusually strong storm ripped through a densely populated coastal city.
  • A once popular hot spot for beach vacationers and seafood lovers has suddenly become empty.  Although the white sandy beeches and the quality fisheries remain intact, most of the area’s business are forced to close.  Municipal infrastructure, such as schools, parks, and roads, must now rely on grants and special funding from outside resources in order to be maintained.  Unfortunately, little funding is available, as the federal and state governments are preoccupied with other issues.
  • A recent ecological study in a popular national park along the coast indicates that the entire park and all of its facilities will loose its beaches and sand dunes in less than two years, which are important areas for nesting shore birds and tourists.  Another study shows that within the next 5 years, the entire park will be underwater.  Since there is no protected land outside of the park, the nearby coastal town will eventually have to build a concrete retaining wall – which will cost millions of dollars to build and maintain- in order to prevent flooding and erosion of the town’s business and homes.
  • Several top-level scientists have sent out warnings to various government agencies and communities that if management practices along a coastline do not change soon, a whole system of wetlands and forests will face the imminent threat of ecological collapse.  There advise is dismissed due to “more important” concerns such as the region’s tourist and manufacturing industries before local citizens even have the chance to give their input.

…And so on.  These scenarios, although purely hypothetical, have happened, are happening, and could continue to happen unless we change our ways.  The toll on our economy, our environment, and on our livelihoods is deeply entrenched and devastating…

Wait a second!!

Before you decide to put a bullet to your brain or jump off of the nearest bridge, let me tell you that there is hope…and plenty of it!

The solution to our coastal management problem may be politically complex, but the concept is actually quite simple.  You could even say it is common sense.  Allow me to explain.

The numerous disasters exemplified above, such as large oil spills and unusually strong hurricanes, are so devastating because of a common but often overlooked problem:  we are developing our cities and communities too close to the shore.

Take a look at Figure 1.  Here we see a typical coastal community, say, on the Gulf of Mexico.  There is a small area of beach and perhaps some sand dunes, and then immediately behind it are the hotels, resorts, schools, businesses, homes, etc.

Figure 1: Schematic illustration of the problem with current coastal management practices in the United States. As a storm or envrionmental disaster apporaches the coast, it immediely effects developed areas along the shore.

This is one of the main reasons events like Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill are so extreme in their consequences.  If you think about it, before these coastal areas became established with the amount and type of people we see today, the areas along the coast would consist not of concrete, levees, and communities, but of natural marshes, wetlands, sand dunes, and even areas of forest.  Any natural or man-made disaster that would affect these regions would first have to “pass through” these natural areas (see Figure 2).  Since these coastal natural environments have endured thousands of years of dramatic storms and natural disasters, they could easily recover should a strong hurricane or perhaps a large scale oil spill and create a buffer.

Figure 2: Schematic illustration of a coastline with a natural buffer. As a storm or other disaster approaches the coast, the damage to shoreline communties is buffered by resiliant natural coastal habitats.

Some people may not agree with this idea, or they may not think it is possible.  But honestly, think about how many lives it would save!

Bark Bay Slough State Natural Area along the shores of Lake Superior in Wisconsin.

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