Reshaping the Coast

Exploring the unintended consequences of coastal engineering
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Mar 17, 2016

Our piecemeal coastal policies are failing us, says Duke University economist Martin Smith. We're failing to consider a future of rising sea levels. Meanwhile, one beach town can make decisions that ripple down the coastline, affecting the shape of beaches miles away. "We're haphazardly geo-engineering a whole coast," Smith says.

To learn more, listen or read the following transcript from episode 15 of “Glad You Asked,” an audio interview series in which Duke University professors comment on the issues they feel the 2016 presidential candidates are ignoring in two minutes or less:

"I'm Martin Smith, I'm an economist in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and I study the oceans. Setting aside the debates about how much climate change is attributable to human activities, we know that the climate is changing. We know that we have to deal with it.

The places in this country that we are really needing to focus a lot of attention on right now are coastal communities. We have this growing population density in the coastal zone but we also have predictions from science that we're going to experience more major storm events, that we will have sea level rise or more sea level rise, more erosion of beaches.

There are places in the coastal environment now that are likely going to be underwater in 100 or 200 years. And so all of these things are sort of coming to a head. What do we do about all that?

But in the near term, we're behaving in a way that's myopic. The way we manage the coastal zone in the short run is sort of an 'every community for themselves' approach. When one community makes a decision about building a seawall or about nourishing its beach, they're not just affecting themselves. They're affecting towns that are 50 kilometers away.

It may not be immediately apparent, but over time what we're actually doing is, we're haphazardly geoengineering a whole coast.

We tend to be focusing on how do we put band-aids on problems. So we have a major event and then it's all about disaster relief. What we're not really thinking about is, if in the distant future some of these places aren't going to work, how do we get from this short run to that distant future without something really catastrophic happening in between?

And the science is telling us that climate change will cause more major storm events. It's a reminder that we need to be thinking about this."

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Alison Jones

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