‘Living shorelines’ the best defense against storms

As Rowan Jacobsen reports in FERN’s latest story, published with Scientific American, research done over the last decade has made clear that “living shorelines” are far better at protecting the coastline from the devastating floods and tidal surges caused by the huge storms of the climate-change era than seawalls and other “armored” shorelines.

“In recent years, more scientists and policymakers have come to believe that ‘living shorelines’—natural communities of salt marsh, mangrove, oyster reef, beach, and coral reef—can be surprisingly effective in a battle coastal residents have been losing for years,” Jacobsen writes. “U.S. shores are disintegrating as higher seas, stronger storms and runaway development trigger an epidemic of erosion and flood damage. Every day waves bite off another 89 hectares of the country. Every year another $500 million of property disappears. Overall, some 40 percent of the U.S. coastline is suffering ongoing erosion. In some places, the rate of loss is breathtaking. Go to Google Earth Engine’s Timelapse feature and watch Shackleford Banks melt away like ice cream on a summer sidewalk.”

The new science is starting to change attitudes outside the lab, too, as property owners and the insurance industry understand the benefits of a more natural approach. “‘Armored’ shorelines such as bulkheads offer less protection against big storms than people think,” Jacobsen writes. “By reflecting wave energy instead of dispersing it, they tend to wear away at the base, which causes them to gradually tilt seaward. Although they still function well in typical storms, they often backfire when high storm surges overtop them, causing them to breach or collapse, releasing an entire backyard into the sea.”