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On a brisk but sunny Monday afternoon last month, I took a stroll down Atlantic City’s famed boardwalk, past salt water taffy shops, past the classic red-and-white rickshaws, past as many shuttered casinos as open ones, and past a surprising number of people. Occasionally, I turned away from the man-made stuff to look towards the original draw of this barrier island just off the southern coast of New Jersey. I brought a hand to my forehead to shield my eyes from the sun, and met with something that didn’t quite seem possible: I was standing on the boardwalk, but I couldn’t see the ocean.
Instead, I saw sand dunes, also man-made, placed there in 2004 to protect the boardwalk from the next big storm. Almost 15 feet high when built, they’re dotted with beach grass to help secure them in place. In many spots along the boardwalk, the dunes have grown even taller as sand from the beach migrates onto them. In this, one of the first resort towns in America, the dunes serve as a glaring reminder that rising seas threaten the very existence of some of our most beloved getaways.
Atlantic City was also one of the first communities to engage in what’s come to be known as “beach nourishment”—a rosy-sounding term for sand replacement. Since 1936, it has undertaken 22 major nourishment projects, according to a database maintained by the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. The most recent came in 2013 after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the New Jersey shoreline. Another one begins this month, just four years later. Atlantic City may be past its prime as a resort area, but that hasn’t slowed the drastic measures to protect it from an ever-encroaching ocean.
In this way, Atlantic City is no different than nearly every other beach area in the country. Beach nourishment has become the go-to solution in the face of rising seas. Most experts agree, though, that sometime this century, as water rises ever further, the technique will no longer be enough. The question that so many are avoiding: What happens then?
The 20th century saw the advent of the densely developed beach resort area. In addition to Atlantic City, places like Miami Beach and Waikiki erected swaths of enormous buildings as close to the water as they could get them. Planners learned the hard way that this kind of development interrupts the natural flow of sand, causing it to wash away, and almost immediately began efforts to keep their beaches in place. In Waikiki, for example, the celebrated Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened in 1927. That same year, a perpendicular wall, or groin, was built out into the sea in front of it, keeping the sand from moving on down the shore. This caused the shoreline on the other side of the groin to lose its sand completely. Today, there is no beach there.
Groins such as the one at the Royal Hawaiian are known as hard solutions. Hard solutions are permanent structures, and also include seawalls, jetties, and offshore breakwaters. More often than not, hard solutions have served to protect buildings, but they intensify the problem of sand erosion. The issue is not that the sand is moving—that’s what nature intended—but that we insist that it stays in one place. “Natural coastal erosion … does not take away beaches, it just moves them,” says Robert Young, a coastal geologist and director of the Western Carolina University shoreline program. “Beaches disappear when you put a road, a seawall, a bulkhead or a big building in the way of that movement.”
As a result of this realization, hard solutions gradually lost favor to soft solutions—namely, beach nourishment and sand dunes (although the big hotels kept going up). Atlantic City started replenishing its beach in 1936, and Waikiki was doing so, starting at least by the middle of the 20th century. Hilton Head got started a couple decades later, in 1969. Today, it’s happening everywhere along the East Coast, and indeed on shorelines throughout the world.
A third solution is managed retreat. This means, in effect, conceding victory to the ocean, and gradually abandoning buildings and infrastructure in the path of rising seas. We’ve seen managed retreat in fits and starts, notably in the wake of Sandy, when both New York and New Jersey enacted programs to buy flooded homes from their owners, with the intent of then abandoning them to the elements. But managed retreat has yet to become particularly viable or popular.
At the same time our beach resorts were becoming more densely populated, sea levels were beginning to rise more rapidly. During the 1900s, the global average sea level rose by somewhere in the vicinity of 6.5 inches, compounding the problem of sand erosion. By the end of the 20th century, it became clear to scientists that sea level rise was likely to accelerate drastically. By this time, climate change was also causing storms to intensify, with individual weather incidents now having a higher likelihood of washing an entire beach away.
Each beachfront has a unique composition and dynamic, making it impossible to predict all the outcomes of a particular beach nourishment project. In Miami Beach, a single large-scale nourishment project has remained largely effective for decades. In Atlantic City, where frequent nor’easters complicate an already precarious situation, nourishment is necessary every few years.
Hilton Head Island is an example of a place that has fairly successfully navigated the realities and uncertainties of the oceanfront. The island has kept beachfront highrises out, and is fairly aggressive in dictating the setback line—the distance from high-tide lines that new buildings must clear. Still, the town (which comprises the entire island) last year completed a $20.7 million beach nourishment project, the fourth such project since 1990, using sand dredged from offshore.
The northern East Coast of the United States has plenty of offshore sand. Other parts of the country aren’t so fortunate. Chip Fletcher, a professor and head of the Coastal Geology Group at the University of Hawaii, told me that recently in Waikiki, “What they’ve done … is dredge sand from the sea floor about a mile offshore. But unfortunately, there’s not much sand out there.” In other words, they need to find another sand source. Fletcher added that the type of sand they use in Waikiki is composed of calcium carbonate and is particularly fragile, adding to the transport challenges.
These complicated situations are made more so by the sometimes competing interests involved. The federal government has left state and local governments to implement most of the policies for their districts, even though it does provide economic support in many cases, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spearheads many beach nourishment projects. In addition to governments, you’ve got the hotels and resorts, and you’ve got the residents. In some places, Waikiki notably, you’ve also got the surfers, a vocal and influential community in their own right.
Interestingly, the resorts that rely on beautiful beaches have so far been spared the responsibility of funding their upkeep. “I don’t think [the resorts] have been forced to deal with this kind of issue,” says Young, “because the planning for the beach nourishment projects, and the cost, has been basically taken care of by other entities, whether you’re talking about major casinos in Atlantic City or a Starwood hotel in Hilton Head.”
This may explain why both Marriott (which now owns Starwood) and Hilton declined to speak with me for this article, as did a number of individual beachfront hotels. Why would they, when so far governments are footing the bill to maintain their beaches? A PR rep for Hilton did direct me to the company’s Corporate Responsibility section on its website, which I checked out. I couldn’t find a single mention of sea level rise.
Seas will continue to rise—any legitimate scientist will confirm it—likely by somewhere between two and six feet by the end of the century. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of roughly 2,000 scientists periodically assessing projections, put the worst-case scenario at one foot of global sea level rise by the middle of this century. The next assessment is scheduled to be finalized in September 2018, and signs point to a significantly worse outlook by then.
Sea levels rise at different paces in different locations, thanks to a number of factors, including land subsidence, or sinking, and regional ocean flows. So far, the sea levels in both Atlantic City and Miami Beach have been rising faster than the global average, and will likely continue to do so. And as it loses the gravitational pull of the melting Greenland Ice Sheet, says Fletcher, Hawaii will likely see sea levels rise 25 percent faster than the global average.
Nuisance flooding, already a major problem in Atlantic City and Miami Beach, will become increasingly common. In Waikiki, it is destined to get much worse. “Our recent modeling suggests we only have about two feet of dry soil between the ground surface and the water table, and that quickly gets soaked in any kind of rainfall,” Fletcher says.
Beach nourishment will be necessary more frequently, and beaches will require more of it with each new round. Sand, already scarce in many locales, will become even more so, leading to rising costs and transport challenges. We don’t know if the water will be clean enough for swimming in some places. Finally, no one really knows what cumulative impact all this sand movement will have on both local ecologies and the wider environment.
Even in the face of these potentially catastrophic outcomes, beach communities are fighting back against the tides. In the United States, a significant chunk of the $947 billion annual direct expenditure on tourism comes from beach visits, giving localities a vested interest in maintaining their cut. In 2015, for example, overnight visitors to Miami spent $24.4 billion in the city, with nearly half staying in Miami Beach, according to a report from the Greater Miami Conventions and Visitors Bureau. A 2008 study by Hospitality Advisors for the Waikiki Improvement Association found that the loss of the Waikiki beach would result in the loss of $150 million in annual tax revenues and 6,350 hotel industry jobs. That’s a lot of money these cities don’t want to lose.
Hilton Head is the kind of place that may prove relatively resilient, given its less rigid shoreline. “If you’re looking 50 years down the road, then communities that have a lower density of development, where the oceanfront is made up primarily of single family homes or duplexes, are certainly going to have a lot more flexibility than communities that have a lot of highrises or shorelines that are heavily urbanized,” says Young.
What about a highly developed coast in a place like Miami? With the economic activity generated by Miami Beach’s resorts, beach nourishment could make sense for Miami Beach even 50 years from now, but it won’t be simple. After a major sand replenishment project in the 1980s, in which 350,000 cubic yards of sand were brought in, the city has relied on supplemental nourishment in erosion “hot spots,” making this one of the more successful projects nationally. And there’s a dune system already in place, as well. But Miami Beach’s problems reach far beyond eroding sand—the city has already set aside $400 million for flood prevention projects, with the first one getting underway last year and almost finished, according to Susy Torriente, an assistant city manager as well as the city’s Chief Resilience Officer. The project includes raising roads and installing a major storm pump system.
Even with these substantial efforts, Miami Beach will need more and different solutions, and it will compete for scarce resources with other beaches along the Florida coast. “It’s hard for me to imagine that 50 years from now that shoreline will be abandoned. 50 years is a long enough period of time but, even at the current level of sea level rise, I just don’t see them being able to cost-effectively maintain robust beaches along all of south Florida,” says Young. “There may be some places where the economy is so powerful that they’ll be able to pay whatever it takes to barge sand over from the Bahamas or something like that. Those places are going to be rare, but maybe South Beach will be one of them.”
Waikiki could be one of those places too. In 2014, visitors spent $14.7 billion in the Hawaiian Islands, so the economic incentive is strong. Still, the ability to maintain a beach there is far from a sure thing. “I would guess that at one foot of sea level rise, and certainly at two feet of sea level rise, we’re looking at a beach which is becoming very difficult to hold in the same footprint,” says Fletcher. He adds that in 50 years, “I think [Waikiki] will be a very different place, unless there’s something with the climate system that we don’t understand, and that very well may be the case.”
For a place like Atlantic City, with a tourist industry already facing major economic challenges, the math could become untenable sooner. In 2016, tourists spent almost $6.9 billion in Atlantic County, largely driven by Atlantic City. But with 5 of its 12 casinos having closed in the past three years and standing empty in front of the ocean, the outlook isn’t encouraging. This month’s beach replenishment will cost $63 million. Some of the only good news for Atlantic City is that offshore sand is plentiful there.
For the moment, resorts bring in enough economic activity that governments can justify the outlays. But beach nourishment is unlikely to remain cost-effective indefinitely. At some point, sand could become so expensive, and the need for more of it so frequent, that the math starts to point toward other decisions.
When it does, we could see abandoned shorelines punctuated by a few remaining densely developed resort areas. Those that survive are likely to become pricier, and they are likely to look different than they do today. In Atlantic City, we’ve already seen this come to pass, as the ocean and sea breeze have become mostly obscured on the boardwalk by the sand dunes protecting it. Fletcher told me about a report from one of his students, Shellie Habel, that has all hotels along the Waikiki shoreline being lofted in the future. Their first floors would be emptied out, allowing water to take up residence as necessary, and the lobbies would be on the second floor. Questions remain, of course, about travelers’ willingness to spend good money on a resort with no beach, even in a famed location, or a beach located behind a row of hotels.
The time will come to pursue more flexible solutions. In Miami, officials are beginning to look for creative ideas in this regard. Torriente shared plans with me for Miami Beach’s first “living sea wall,” which is currently in the approval pipeline. It would build on an existing but crumbling sea wall using landscape and native plants instead of more concrete. The living sea wall will not only improve the aesthetics of the waterfront, says Torriente, but also help resuscitate marine life in the immediate area. This makes for a different kind of waterfront, but one that could be attractive to visitors.
On beachfronts yet to be developed, temporary or portable structures could start to make a lot of sense. These types of structures can adjust to the natural movements of shorelines, moving backward or sideways or even to a new beachfront altogether. An extreme version of this concept proposes building on the water itself. The Seasteading Institute, co-founded by venture capitalist and Donald Trump confidant Peter Thiel, is advancing plans for “floating cities.” The institute hopes to break “ground” on a pilot project in French Polynesia in 2018. Similarly, a Russian architect designed a well-received floating “Ark Hotel,” a resort that is indifferent to rising seas.
People I spoke to for this article would like to see the federal government take a more centralized role in setting policy (although don’t expect much for the next four years, at least). Up to now, state and local governments have been left to create a piecemeal system of uncoordinated projects and policies. I also heard from multiple corners a desire to see scientists, engineers, other experts, and government representatives gather more often in the same room to seek out solutions.
As I walked the length of the Atlantic City boardwalk on that afternoon, I found myself initially swept up in nostalgia for the place. This is history worth preserving, was my prevailing sentiment. But on the return stroll, practicalities set in. What, exactly, would we be preserving on this particular shoreline, and at what cost? Retreat could indeed be the most logical conclusion. But then I’m reminded of something else Robert Young said. We can’t forget, he told me, about “our hardheaded American desire not to let nature win.”
This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.