Hurricanes, Coastal Erosion and Beach Nourishment

by Matt Conlin

This week, Wednesday, 11/30,  is the official end of hurricane season here in the US (hooray)!  Though off-season hurricanes do happen, it’s rare for them to strike the U.S. mainland.  That makes now as good a time as any to reflect on this year’s hurricane season and our coastal communities.

Earlier this month Hurricane Nicole lashed Florida bringing power outages, flooding and loss of life.  As storms often do, Nicole also caused widespread coastal erosion in Volusia County which includes Daytona Beach Shores, New Smyrna Beach and Daytona Beach. The giant waves that hurricanes bring act like a huge shovel, picking up the beach sand and taking it away.  Anything on or near the beach, be it piers, boardwalks and / or houses, are then left at the mercy of the waves.  Hurricanes typically strike the southeastern US, they rarely strike the west coast because hurricanes generally travel east to west as steered by wind patterns, so it’s a reality for these communities that big storms and beach erosion are going to happen.  The question is how to manage the consequences.

If you live in a coastal community, you may have heard of or even seen beach nourishment, sometimes called beach re-nourishment, in action.  Basically sand is taken from somewhere else, often somewhere offshore, and pumped onto the beach.  The idea is that the more sand there is on the beach, the more protection there is for communities from erosion.  Makes sense, but keep in mind that these projects are expensive, often costing communities millions of dollars.  Florida alone has spent over $1.9 billion on nourishing their beaches in the last 50 years.

And that’s the issue with beach nourishment - it can be a band-aid on a larger issue, needing to be done over and over.  Some beaches are subject to “chronic erosion”, which means eroding slowly, or quickly, all the time.  So spending all that money to nourish a beach could only buy some time until it needs to be done again.  Yes, it can buy you some time in the short term to have a beach to play on, but is it sustainable in the long term?  And back to hurricanes, a single sizable one might wipe away all that sand that was recently put down. Prior to Hurricane Ian, Ponte Vedra, FL just completed a big beach and dune building project and now it’s like it never happened.

So is there a better solution?  There just might be and it’s called “Engineering with Nature”, and there’s lots of work going into this right now.  Instead of trying to fight nature, what if we work with it?  What if we restore coastal wetlands and mangroves to soak up flood waters, reduce wave energy and stabilize sand for decades to come?  And no country is better prepared to deal with coastal erosion and flooding than the Netherlands given ~1/3 of the country is below sea level so we can also look to them for pointers.

These are ideas that are already in practice so it will be critical to continue with these and other efforts to protect our coastal communities in the future in the face of rising sea levels due to climate change.  And while we’re on the subject, I’d be remiss not to mention another adaptation option, managed retreat, which in essence is moving away from the shoreline to protect people and property.  While today this may seem like an extreme solution, it may ultimately pave the way for the most resilient coastal communities.

This blog post comes to courtesy of Matt Conlin, a postdoctoral scholar at the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS) at Oregon State University. This is our first blog post from someone with a specific background in coastal erosion and beach nourishment, thanks Matt, and we expect to be making this a regular feature in 2023 and beyond.