Shelter from the storm

Four days after Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey, I still haven’t heard from my dad.

He’s a “no news is good news” kind of guy, and my hometown is sufficiently far from the coast that I’m not too worried. Still, he undoubtedly lost power and therefore cell phone service at some point when the “Frankenstorm” passed through the region. I’m just hoping a tree didn’t fall through the roof in the process.

Sandy, a freak weather hybrid built from a hurricane traveling north and a cold front traveling east, knocked out power for millions, decimated the New York and New Jersey public transportation systems, and produced 20-foot waves on Lake Michigan.

But perhaps the most dramatic imagery of the storm’s effects came from the Atlantic coastline, where a full moon’s high tides amplified the storm surge, putting huge swaths of expensive shorefront property under water. Looking at the slowly draining streets, 100-foot gaps in boardwalks, and crumpled homes, we’re forced to remember just how fragile our grip on the coastline can be.

Why, then, do we perch our major cities and our prized vacation homes at the perilous boundary between land and sea?

In part, we build on the coasts, particularly in more sheltered areas, for practical reasons: this was where, centuries ago, we came ashore as colonists. This was where we launched (and still launch) ships loaded with goods bound for foreign markets.

And then, of course, there are aesthetic reasons. We have salt water in our veins. Perhaps some deeply seated part of our biology recalls our oceanic ancestors. Or perhaps we crave the restorative properties of salt air, or the perspective granted by the rugged power of the waves.

Unfortunately, as we expand and perch more structures and more investment along the coastline, we also undermine our natural buffers against disasters like Hurricane Sandy.

My home state is the perfect example. Much of New Jersey’s coast has long been protected naturally by a string of barrier islands that are essentially large sand dunes a couple of miles out to sea. The islands, which bear the brunt of storm fronts coming through, are backed by relatively calm bays and expansive salt marshes that incidentally, provide temporary housing for millions of migratory birds (and permanent housing for lots of other biodiversity) twice a year.

Today, rather than semi-permanent lines of dunes drifting slowly northward with the prevailing currents, these barrier islands are home to the casinos of Atlantic City, endless lines of pastel-colored vacation rentals and countless rock jetties intended (but failing) to pin the sand in place. Only a few spots, like state parks and old military preserves, still capture the iconic, dune-grass-covered, bayberry-scented scene that once prevailed along the eastern seaboard.

We’ve also lost plenty of wetlands – but that’s hardly a purely New Jersey phenomenon. Across the country, we’ve “reclaimed” half of our marshy areas; here in California, we’ve destroyed 90% of them. Troublingly, like the barrier islands which intercept storm surges and huge waves, wetlands buffer us against changes in water level by sponging up overflow that, in their absence, floods roads and punctures dams.

Beyond their protective role, wetlands provide other services to us, from hours of entertainment for birdwatchers, to nursery grounds for baby fish, to filtration of pollutants and even to natural “lazy river” rides, if you time the tides right on broader inlets. And yet, we habitually fail to respect them, choosing instead to drain the land for other uses.

Perhaps our shifting climate will yet remind us of the valuable assets we’ve paved over. Though no science, not even the best climate model, is set in stone, we do know that warm surface ocean waters (which will become more common on a warmer planet) probably helped spur Sandy on to her East Coast rendezvous. And this year’s dramatic Arctic sea ice minimum might have influenced the stalled air masses over Greenland that pushed Sandy inland. But most importantly, because warmer air temperatures mean warmer sea temperatures, and warmed water, just like warmed air, expands, sea level rise will bring storm surges that much higher. Each new storm will flood more homes and subway lines, driving us further back from the coastline.

In some places, the storms will scrub our imprint from the land. The sand scoured from New Jersey’s beaches will come to rest on a new shore. Another little girl will walk with her father at the edge of the sea, carefully skirting the newly established dune grasses at his gentle insistence.

Holly welcomes questions, comments and reports on the well-being of her father at hollyvm@stanford.edu.

About Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).