In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the federal government pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to pump more sand onto beaches in New Jersey and New York devastated by the storm. It was not exactly a new idea, write Orrin H. Pilkey and J. Andrew G. Cooper in their new book, The Last Beach. The federal government has been pouring money into keeping the nation’s beaches stocked with sand since the 1960s, and the tab has grown substantial. Since 1970, Pilkey and Cooper point out, the U.S. has pumped more than 370 million cubic yards of sand onto beaches around the country, at a cost of more than $3.7 billion.

The Last Beach

by Orrin H. Pilkey and
J. Andrew G. Cooper
Duke University Press Books, 256 pp.

Such efforts have proved popular with residents of beachfront communities. But Pilkey, who is a professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, and Cooper, a professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, argue that the effort is increasingly futile at a time of rising sea levels, when each fresh infusion of sand lasts only a few years and the cost of replenishing beaches has risen sharply.

Consider, for instance, how often some American beaches have had to be replenished. Wrightsville Beach, near Wilmington, North Carolina, Pilkey and Cooper point out, has had more sand added to it nineteen times since 1965. Carolina Beach has been restocked twenty-eight times. Hurricane Sandy made even more federal money available for replenishing beaches. To take one example I discovered in my reporting for ProPublica: contractors for the Army Corps of Engineers added more than 1.8 million cubic yards of sand to the beach in Ocean City, New Jersey, in 2013, with the American taxpayer footing most of the $18 million bill. It wasn’t the first time the town had benefited from federal largess. In the past twenty years, on nine separate occasions, Washington has moved nearly twelve million cubic yards of sand to Ocean City beaches, according to data compiled by Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, to the tune of $40 million.

The Last Beach is a broad survey of the threats facing the world’s beaches as sea levels inch up and after decades of unrestrained building on coasts from Miami Beach to Málaga. “Beaches in nature are almost indestructible,” Pilkey and Cooper write. They bounce back astonishingly quickly even after devastating storms. When a tsunami hit the Indonesian island of Sumatra in 2004, for instance, the beaches on the Banda Aceh coast seemed totally destroyed, as the coastline moved more than 325 feet landward overnight. But satellite images taken a little more than a year after the tsunami show a wide, newly formed beach along the eroded coastline. Natural beaches can also survive rising sea levels. In the early 2000s, a marine geologist named Andy Green discovered a series of preserved dunes 200 feet below sea level off the coast of South Africa—the remnants of an ancient beach. The beach had been drowned when the sea level rose rapidly about 11,500 years ago. Natural “beaches have been able to survive more than 325 feet” of sea-level rise since the last ice age, Pilkey and Cooper write—orders of magnitude greater than the height the oceans are predicted to rise in the next century.

These beaches shifted with the coastline. But it’s impossible for beaches to move when they’re lined with boardwalks and oceanfront high rises, as they increasingly are around the world. The “rush of civilization to the shore that we have witnessed in our lifetime has been quite unlike anything that occurred in the past,” Pilkey and Cooper write. The result: a growing number of seawalls and other fortifications to protect beachfront property—and growing costs to the American taxpayer to maintain them. “Seawalls are the beach’s deadliest enemies,” the authors write, “preventing their landward migration and causing them to be squeezed out as sea level rises.” In the coming decades, Americans will have to decide whether they want to preserve the nation’s beaches or the buildings behind them; they cannot have both.

There’s no real narrative running through The Last Beach. Instead, the book is organized into chapters laying out the various ways in which humans have maimed the world’s beaches. There are a lot: dams such as the Elwha Dam in Washington State—which was blown up in 2011—have cut off the flow of sediment that feeds many beaches. Illegal sand mining has depleted beaches from Morocco to Malaysia. Increasing amounts of trash are accumulating on beaches. Beach pollution is also increasing, and while the water along beaches is often tested, the beach sand itself is not. “Walking barefoot, lying directly on beach sand, and particularly, being buried in the sand may now be hazardous activities for beachgoers,” Pilkey and Cooper write.

Pilkey—whom the New York Times Magazine described in 1988 as “America’s foremost philosopher of the beaches, the sea bottoms and the coastal sands”—has taught at Duke for half a century, and he has coauthored more than two dozen books on beaches and coasts. The Last Beach is sprinkled with fascinating trivia about beaches around the world. Who knew, for instance, that the turtle eggs found on the beaches of Ras al Hadd in Oman can make up 95 percent of the diet of the Arabian foxes there? Or that 700 truckloads of illegally mined beach sand “cross the bridge from Singapore to Malaysia every day”? And if the book is not exactly stylishly written, it is clear and readable, particularly for an academic volume. Phrases such as “multi-decadal time frame” thankfully pop up only rarely.

The Last Beach is determinedly international—it dives into the full range of challenges facing beaches around the world. But the broad focus means that Pilkey and Cooper don’t delve into the public policy decisions that have encouraged risky construction along the shoreline in the U.S. A federal law called the Stafford Act, for instance, commits Washington to paying at least three-quarters of the cost of repairing infrastructure damage after storms. In 2012, the New York Times reported that the law had caused the federal government to shell out more than $80 million, adjusted for inflation, since 1979 to patch up the tiny community of Dauphin Island, Alabama. That’s more than $60,000 for each of the island’s 1,300 permanent residents. The heavily subsidized National Flood Insurance Program has paid an additional $72 million to Dauphin Island homeowners. Pilkey called the situation on the island a “scandal” in the Times story, but neither the Stafford Act nor the flood insurance program earns a mention in the book.

Pilkey and Cooper devote a few pages to the influence of what might be called the coastal engineering industrial complex—the big international engineering firms that compete for government contracts to build seawalls and other fortifications that the authors argue destroy beaches in the long run. They also mention the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, a lobbying group that promotes beachfront development and has championed beach replenishment. But they don’t go into depth on how, exactly, companies and lobbyists have influenced the public policy discussion surrounding beaches.

What’s the way forward for beaches, then? Pilkey and Cooper’s predictions are grim: “We believe that the current outlook, biased toward protection of property, will inevitably lead to a worldwide loss of beaches lined with development.” Artificial stone steps descending into the water and strips of sand behind seawalls will become increasingly common along developed coastlines, they suggest. Increased pollution will likely mean rules against walking barefoot on some beaches, even if such rules seem unthinkable today.

Pilkey and Cooper do point to a few promising examples of government reforms. Britain’s National Trust, for instance, which owns about 10 percent of the coastline in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, has adapted buildings to rising waters in recent years and has resisted calls for constructing seawalls. In the U.S., the National Park Service has banned coastal engineering along national seashores since 1972, and some states bar hard defenses such as seawalls. But the authors also hint at the political obstacles to saving beaches in the U.S. “Since local communities almost always prefer beach loss to building loss, the retreat option must be governed and enforced at a higher level of government,” they write. But which specific policies might achieve this, they do not say.

Theodoric Meyer

Theodoric Meyer was until recently ProPublica's reporting fellow. He was a lead reporter on ProPublica's After the Flood series of stories investigating the federal government's troubled flood insurance program, which won the Deadline Club Award for Local Reporting last year.