Happy 4th of July from the eroding edge of the USA.

blufferosionI’m on St Catherine’s Island, spending the day working with students on data analysis and presentations. No rest for those on a schedule, although we did have a class reading of the Declaration.

Of note to patriots: the ocean appears to be robbing the USA of land. Diminishment. The coast is eroding here at a rate of at least one and a half meters per year. A little further south, the rate is closer to seven meters each year. For the whole stretch of coast on St Catherine’s Island, only one or two small areas are accreting (growing), the rest is in retreat. Damming of rivers and dredging of sea ports starve the beach of new material. This, combined with a rising sea level, results in loss of land.

Erosion first exposes the roots of palms, live oaks and other shoreline vegetation, then topples the trees, leaving picturesque “boneyards.”

palm rootsboneyarddeadwoodStorms cause much of the erosion, but even on calm days the steep slope of the sea-facing bluffs are continually disturbed by small landslides: rivulets of North America sliding into the Atlantic.

erodingsandCoastal erosion is underway over much of the eastern shore of the continent. Huge areas  of land are lost from the Mississippi delta every year. How does all this add up? Does erosion outpace accretion on a country-wide level? Certainly as the world warms, it will. But is the USA smaller today than it was in 1776? The answer is hard to come by, but it seems that for the last few decades at least: yes, shrinkage is occurring.

24 thoughts on “Happy 4th of July from the eroding edge of the USA.

  1. C.C.

    Makes me think of the Maldives. Got to watch the PBS show “The Island President” a few months back. What a valiant effort that young, intelligent and popular president made for his country. I wish there would be more science-backed reports about geography. Thank you so much for reporting this (I am a land-locked New Mexican) and for the beautiful photos that make me able to sniff the salt-warm air.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you.

      I have not seen the show but have read a fair amount about this. My first draft of the post had a few parags about the challenges to international law presented by climate-changed induced “stateless” peoples and who is responsible… Interestingly a recent amendment to the immigration bill addressed this (though not the root cause, of course). See http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2013/06/20/2187831/climate-refugee-immigration-bill/?mobile=nc

      Happy 4th!

  2. Larry Brasher

    Today, the 4th, is my birthday, and I notice that I am shrinking, too, in places, but accreting in others.
    Larry Brasher

  3. pete saussy

    the crumbling coast attracts the eye but its not everywhere. my family’s house is on Litchfield beach, sc. and has been amazingly stable over the past 50 years, losing a few feet to northeasters and gaining in the summer from southeasters. i’m guessing it has something to do with our embayment and its angle to prevailing winds. another clue is that we have relatively little beach detritus or FOB; the shell picking is meagre compared to more energetic beaches

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Interesting. Sounds like you are at that balance point between accretion and erosion. On St Catherine’s, the place that is accreting is SW of a shoal, so the energy level is very low on that corner.

  4. L Harding

    Having spent halcyon days on Little Cumberland Island in the 70’s and 80’s I know you are in paradise … thank you for the memories, and the lessons

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      This is a beautiful place, for sure. A very tough place ecologically though: the plants and animals have to deal with extremes that mainlanders cannot handle. So much salt and heat, for one.

      Happy 4th!

  5. M. Vickers

    Your photos remind me very much of Hunting Island, S.C.–a maritime forest eroding into the sea. I find those “boneyards” lovely in many ways, and haunting.

  6. mowque

    (Once again) When I went to NC, I saw that the island was shrinking, rather badly. I could literally see sand being washed out to sea. And it had ‘boneyards’ as well. Very sad.

  7. Anonymous

    Hunting Island, S.C. moving south like a cloud across the sky in slo’ mo’, land eroding from the north side but building again as it’s depositing on the south. The earth constantly changing and laughing at human’s demands that it stay put when we chose to build something “permanent”.

      1. fishingblues

        No, unfortunately for all that live there, it is impossible to sell and insurance companies won’t touch you with a ten foot pole! When I was there less than a month ago people were still living in homes that were maybe twenty feet from the edge of the bluff. They live with the risk of waking up in the water.

  8. Jerry Oster

    I’m one third through a projected walk of the 320-mile North Carolina seacoast–http://goingnccoastal.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/13th-leg-carolina-beach-and-kure-beach is the most recent leg–and everywhere I’ve gone there’s been evidence of erosion. Where there is accretion (at the west ends of Sunset Beach and Emerald Isle, both east-west [roughly] off-shore bars, it’s not where locals would like to have the sand. Where there has been beach replenishment, it’s been costly and wasteful. Last winter’s new “sand” (really gravel and shell hash) is already washing out to sea, a million-dollar-plus wishful thought.

    Along with erosion, my wife and I (who have been coming to Emerald Isle for 20 years, so I guess we’re part of the problem) have noticed a diminution in the number of shore birds. There used to be lots of sanderlings and sand pipers, but now there are virtually none. A regular treat were the several-times-daily flyovers of a dozen or more pelicans, but they’re now rare.

    And is it possible there are fewer flies and mosquitos? We don’t use air conditioning, and our landlord won’t install a screen door, so we keep our front door open to let breezes through to the screen doors leading to the rear deck. We rarely see a fly and haven’t had mosquitos in years, although we’re on the Bogue Sound side, with some nearby marshes.

    Jerry Oster
    Chapel Hill NC

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      What a great walking project! I love your emphasis on not treating it as a race — “The plan is not to power-walk the coast, but to take my time, look around, see what makes one beach different from another.” Sounds like a fabulous way to listen to the stories of the coastline.

      From what I’ve read of replenishment projects, they are indeed very expensive and usually not successful on anything but the very short term. (And the “beach” that is put in place is a biological shadow of its former self.)

      Shorebirds are indeed in decline (for many species). The 2000 assessment report summarizes this, although I think some species have made positive changes since then (http://www.shorebirdplan.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/SHORCONS3.pdf).

      Fly and mosquito populations seem, based on my limited and informal data, to vary a lot year-by-year and by sub-habitat. I have not noticed a deficiency of mosquitoes in the old swales behind the dunes (far from it!). In some places, local governments spray for mossies, so that will affect some populations.

      You might enjoy The View from Lazy Point by Carl Safina: an excellent book full of insight into the coast and ocean (and beyond).

  9. erzsi2

    I know this comment is a month + late. I just wanted to share my frustration with people and developers who do not understand the dynamics of our beautiful natural environment. Especially developers, do not take the time to understand the geology of the coastal areas they so greedily want to develop with grandiose architectural plans. They don’t understand the environmental damages they inflict upon the coastal landscapes; nor to the flora and fauna in the environment.
    In South Carolina, where we used to have such beautiful beaches and maritime environments; developers and Northerners are so willing to buy “prime” beachfront properties and spend millions of dollars to build massive homes. They don’t realize that in a few years, their homes will be impacted by hurricane force winds, storm surges and other natural processes. They also don’t realize that they are a significant factor in the erosion problems-not to mention the pollutants they are piping into the ocean with their sewer systems.
    I just don’t understand this kind of human mentality to destroy such an integral part of our existence at the expense of a few weeks of ‘summer vacation’ at best.
    E. J. Farkas

      1. erzsi2

        Yes, you are right that it is not just developers and ‘the Northerners’ who do not take into account the dynamics of the oceans. I suppose unless one is grounded in history, geology, archaeology, environmental issues then it does not occur to folks that erosion; namely beach erosion is but part of the cycle of our dynamic planet and the environment. It is going to happen no matter what we attempt to do to ‘fix’ it. I just can’t wrap my head around the total ignorance of people who attempt to change and/or modify a natural environment to suit their short-term ideals. In the process of modifying the natural landscape, they destroy natural habitats as well. As grounded as I am in ancient North American history and Archaeology, I cannot for the life of me reconcile the notion of the utter disregard of [the] modern 21st century mindset that appears to be set on destroying every pristine piece of land we set our feet on, and the total disregard for the natural resources. Sure, the Native Americans modified the environment before the era of 1500’s contact period. However, I believe that to a greater extent, at least the Native Americans had a healthy respect and honor for their environment and the natural resources they lived with and depended on. I do not see any respect, honor or such regard today. Those of us who do are a very few of the minority who understand the the natural environmental cycles at work…


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