Healing beaches through storms

“Physician, heal thyself”  is a challenge which should be issued to any psychologist or prophet or teacher or resilience expert.  Right after leading a workshop on resilience in Vermont last week, I proved how much I need that advice when I caught a cold.  I’d been getting by on too little sleep and traveling too much.  My defenses were down and encountered a new cold virus in the crowd at the resilience conference.  I realized once again my limits.

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Luke, the Physician, cited this pre-Christian proverb because the prophet or expert should show the proof of his theories in his own life.  So, I rest, drink plenty of liquids, dose myself with Nyquil now and then, and am thankful for the knowledge of Nature which led to the chemicals which remove most of my symptoms and help me recover.

I take pride in not using medicines, except healthy foods.  I used to rely on copious quantities of grapefruit juice to help me get over colds.  This regimen led to low grade colds which hung on for weeks.  I once ignored a cold and it turned into double pneumonia and intravenous antibiotics.  Not the epitome of a paragon of resilience.  Now I am Nyquil from the first day.  Like all resilient people I am conservative, but embrace innovation which gets the system back to efficient long-term effectiveness.

The thunderstorms we’ve gotten lately are just like my cold.  Both are disturbances which a system responds to.  Just as I have adapted my system of dealing with colds, so do most communities need to adapt their systems to deal with storms.

Storms are regular occurrences in any ecosystem.  They blow down weak and diseased trees so that healthy ones have room to thrive.  They also expose the weaknesses in any system’s infrastructure for resilience.

For years coastal communities have tried to counter storms with seawalls and jetties–imposing structures of wood and/or concrete intended to fend off angry tides and surging waves. Not only have seawalls in certain areas been shown repeatedly to fail when tested, but they pose a threat to the delicate ecosystems associated with wetlands and intertidal areas.

Instead of absorbing energy generated by wind and waves, seawalls reflect that force back into the water,  further eroding the shore and erasing important habitats for fish, crabs, and shore birds.  Recent research suggests that biological barriers both better protect against erosion and preserve vital ocean habitats.One researcher contends: “You are essentially talking about a little over a 25 percent loss in biodiversity and also around a 35 to 40 percent loss in abundance when you have a seawall instead of a natural shoreline.”

If you go to the coast this summer, look at how your favorite beach is protected.  Does the community use seawalls, jetties and other physical structures to prevent erosion of the beach?   In many cases, seawalls, jetties, breakwaters and groins have caused down-coast erosion problems with associated costs that have greatly exceeded the construction cost of the structure.

Research  along the North Carolina coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011 suggests that the use of “living shorelines” instead of seawalls can protect private property from these coastal hazards without compromising the habitats.  Living shorelines use plants, sand, and rarely stone to provide shoreline protection and maintain valuable habitat.  They are created by planting native wetland plants and grasses, shrubs, and trees at various points along the tidal water line.  Plantings are coordinated with carefully placed bioengineering materials, such as manmade coconut-fiber rolls (or biologs) to protect vegetation and soils. Where viable, oysters can be included as well.

In an area of North Carolina hardest hit by hurricanes, one study concluded 75 percent of the seawalls had some kind of damage, while other types of shorelines, including living shorelines, were damage-free.

The problem is that many homeowners and communities want their property to stay exactly the way it is.  Resilient systems, instead, embrace change and use it to create better systems.  I know that healthy foods and exercise are the best routes to avoiding colds, but when I get one anyway, I use Nyquil because I know it helps make my colds go away.

Similarly, coastal communities cannot just let Nature take its course.  Nature has and will sweep whole communities into the sea.  But the resilient approach is to understand and work with Nature instead of fighting it.  Coastal communities need to embrace innovations in shore protection which are far better than seawalls and jetties.

To know which innovations will work for a community, we have to know how waves and beach sand interact.  Beach sand comes from rivers and moves from river mouths to the beach. It then moves along the coast in the direction of prevailing currents and eventually it moves offshore. This sand transport system is called a littoral cell.

When waves break at an angle to the shoreline, part of the wave’s energy is directed along the shore. These “longshore currents” flow parallel to the shore. Surfers call this the “drift”. This current will move sand along the shore and a beach will be formed. The same current that transports a surfer down the beach from the point of entry will also move beach sand down the shoreline. When this longshore current turns seaward, it is called a rip tide.

If inland property is biologically protected and sand is permitted to flow along the shoreline, beaches will be naturally replenished.  Unfortunately, when one community builds a jetty to protect it’s beach, the force of the waves is amplified downsteam at the next community, which must intervene to save its sand..

This vicious cycle just amplifies the damage caused by storms. It’s just like the mother who tries to sanitize her baby’s environment to keep it away from all germs.  Often these mothers realize too late that babies who encounter natural, unpolluted soils and plants grow into children with fewer allergies, asthma and other maladies.

Whether you’re trying to protect your beach or avoid illness, learn from and work with Nature and you’ll always be . . .more resilient, of course.

 

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