We Won't Save Ourselves, But Sand Dunes Might.

Highway 12 after Hurricane Irene. Outer Banks, North Carolina.   Credit: Western Carolina University

Adaptation. In the long run, adaptation is a means of survival. And you can find examples of it everywhere, from cave salamanders' blindness to the billions of bacteria in our own stomachs. Adaptations allow for evolution, and over millions of years, not by any conscious decision but through natural selection, adaptations prove to be very important. They allow species to survive.

But there are also behavioral adaptations. Like Poynter deciding to make its headlines lowercase. They are conscious decisions, made by looking at the world around you and realizing that it's different, and that as hard as it may be to accept it, you need to be different, too. It's as simple as learning from your mistakes. We adjust our behavior when we learn that the world acts a little bit differently than we thought it did. We grow up.

When I saw this picture of Highway 12 I was shocked. Not at the damage, but at the construction. I don't think it's wise to say this with any sort of "I told you so" attitude because weather patterns have changed dramatically in the past 50 years, but I think it's pretty obvious that it's not a good idea to build a house (or a road) on a beach anymore. Especially one with no dunes.

On the New Jersey coast, the two places that sustained significantly less damage from Hurricane Irene than their neighbors were behind a row of sand dunes. The dunes were made by people with bulldozers, but nevertheless, they did what all sand dunes do and protected the land behind them. The people without dunes took a beating. Now, people are getting pretty opinionated about dunes.

Humans are really good at making decisions about cutting out the parts of nature they don't want and, when that causes problems, trying to solve them by "battling" the natural forces that would have been mitigated by the things they eliminated in the first place.  It happened when a city called New Orleans was built below sea level, it happened when people decided they didn't like the natural course of the Atchafalaya River, it happens every time a kid builds a dam of sticks in a creek in their back yard, and it's happening right now on the Mississippi River, which in some places is 20 feet lower than it was last year. People are mad about it. And the funny part is - if there's anything funny about it - the Army Corps of Engineers (the same ones who built those sand dunes on the Jersey shore), is liable for it. John McPhee once put it this way in The Control of Nature: the Corps has been conceded the almighty role of God.  And we're paying them do it, and we get mad when they can't.

Before I go too far, I don't want to pretend like this is a simple problem with an easy solution. It's not. There are 30 million people living within a two hour drive of the Jersey shore. To say that they should all up and leave is ignorant of a lot of facts, including the importance of those 30 million people and the land they live on to our economy. Not to mention that they're people with lives and jobs, with homes and land full of history and memories, and people just don't uproot themselves that easily.

But I think that we can learn. And I think we should examine the way we're living and paying for it on a larger scale. Is there a way to live with the weather instead of resisting it? Instead of sea walls and "beach nourishment" (the official term for dumping sand on the shore), can we create a solution that acknowledges and allows for hurricanes? Erosion? Accretion? Can we adapt to a changing climate?

To end, I want to share before and after picture of another beach that weathered the storm. This one's off the coast of Georgia:

Cumberland Island, before the storm

Cumberland Island, after the storm.

Oh wait. That's the same picture.

Notice the dunes?  It's not "beach nourishment." That's just what happens when you let a beach be itself.


  1. Thanks Laura. It's always good to be reminded every day, in some way, that there is more and more we can do to be living consciously and in a way that actually SHARES the land we live on. Even though I don't live by the sea (although it's a dream), and there's not a whole lot I can do about those that do- I like to be reminded that although I'm small, me and all my other human friends CAN impact the earth and our surroundings- maybe forever- and that is an important thing to think about with every breath and every step...Our surroundings are constantly changing, and it don't do us a bit of good to dig in and keep trying the same ol' thing.

  2. Hey Ann, thanks for your comment. I agree, it don't do us a bit o' good to dig in, or at least do so without questioning it. I hope y'all enjoyed those Cumberland dunes a few weeks ago!


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