Retreat From a Rising Sea: A Book Review

February 16, 2018, 7:44 PM EST

article image

Above: An excellent example of a well-managed strategic retreat from the coast occurred in 1999, when the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on North Carolina’s Outer Banks was moved 2,900 feet back from an eroding shoreline, a move that cost $12 million. When completed in 1870, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse had been located a safe 1,500 feet inland from the ocean, but natural barrier island erosion processes, augmented by rising seas and storm-driven tides, had reduced this distance to just 120 feet by 1999. Locals were strongly opposed to the move, believing it would harm the tourist industry. Ironically, the lighthouse is now more of a tourist attraction than ever. On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the regional slope of the land is 1 to 10,000, which means in theory that a 1-foot rise in sea level could move the shoreline about 2 miles. Thus, the lighthouse will likely have to be moved again later this century. Image credit: National Park Service.

The only answer to rising seas is to retreat, argue Duke University sea level rise expert Dr. Orrin Pilkey and co-authors in their excellent 2016 book, Retreat From a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change. The book provides an excellent overview of how fast sea level is rising, the vulnerability of coastal cities to sea level rise in both the U.S. and worldwide, the failed government policies that subsidize the wealthy and encourage high-risk development near eroding shores, and the well-funded PR campaign by the fossil fuel industry to keep us from recognizing the problem. The authors write:

“Like it or not, we will retreat from most of the world’s non-urban shorelines in the not very distant future. Our retreat options can be characterized as either difficult or catastrophic. We can plan now and retreat in a strategic and calculated fashion, or we can worry about it later and retreat in tactical disarray in response to devastating storms. In other words, we can walk away methodically, or we can flee in panic.”

Miami flooding
Figure 1. Water flows out of the Miami River to flood a walkway as Hurricane Irma passes through on September 10, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Miami and New Orleans are doomed

In a chapter titled, “The Fate of Two Doomed Cities”, the authors argue that “the survival of Miami and New Orleans beyond the twenty-first century is in serious doubt”, due to sea level rise:

“Miami will probably be doomed when the sea has risen 2 more feet. There is no nearby high ground to move buildings to; seawalls and the like won’t work [due to the porous bedrock that allows sea water to filter through]; and city and state leaders haven’t even agreed that there is a problem, much less started planning how to respond to the coming flood. Making a response all the more difficult, Miami’s demise will be slow and gradual; death from a thousand cuts.

The demise of New Orleans, however, will be either one big catastrophe or a series of catastrophes—that is, big storms. The potential for extreme damage from storms increases every year as the sea level rises.”

Dauphin Island damage
Figure 2. Waves and surge during Hurricane Isaac (August 2012) overtopped low dunes to create overwash deposits that extended onto the road and the island in lobes toward the bay side of Dauphin Island, Alabama. A large channel was cut through the island, seen at the top of this image. “There is no better example in North America of a coastal development ripe for retreat than western Dauphin Island,” the authors argue. Image credit: USGS.

The U.S. flood insurance policy: not good

In a chapter titled, “The Tax Payers and the Beach House”, the book points out the serious deficiencies in U.S. flood policy. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which we detailed in a November blog post, is discussed, as well as a lesser-known statute called the Stafford Act, enacted in 1988. A presidential disaster declaration triggers the Stafford Act, which establishes a cost-sharing plan of 75% in federal funds to 25% state and local funds to repair storm damage. The Stafford Act has funded 75% of the $150 - $185 million per year spent over the past decade in the U.S. on beach replenishment projects.

The Stafford Act has been responsible for the lion’s share of the $80 million used to repair damages incurred from ten hurricanes and tropical storms since 1979 that have damaged the west end of Dauphin Island, Alabama, “a very low and narrow spit that we rank as the worst development site on any American barrier island.” This 1-square-mile area contains around 400 homes, so the $80 million amounts to about $200,000 per home (and over $60,000 per resident). This does not include the $72.2 million in NFIP payments made to Dauphin Island home owners since 1988, compared to $9.3 million paid in premiums by those property owners over that period. “There is no better example in North America of a coastal development ripe for retreat than western Dauphin Island,” they argue.

North Topsail Beach damage after Fran
Figure 3. Damage in North Topsail, North Carolina, after the storm surge from Category 3 Hurricane Fran of 1996. Image credit: USGS.

They rank North Topsail Beach in North Carolina, an 11.1-mile long community on the northern third of Topsail Island, as the second-most dangerous island for development in the United States. North Topsail is low and narrow (25 yards wide in some locations), and has a single escape road that easily floods and will prevent escape even in the earliest phase of an approaching hurricane. The single row of dunes on the island was bulldozed up from the beach, and disappears quickly in storms. Hurricane Fran (1996), a Category 3 storm with 115 mph winds that made landfall near Cape Fear, North Carolina, cut at least six inlets across the island. “The irresponsibility of development on this hazardous island is breathtaking,” the authors write. “A number of high-rise condominiums and hotels have been built, including the high-end St. Regis Resort and Villa Capriano condo/hotels.” A 2009 technical report co-written by Dr. Pilkey and geologist William Neal, North Topsail Beach, North Carolina: A model for maximizing coastal hazard vulnerability, has more detail on why they rate this location as being so dangerous; some of the conclusions of this report have been challenged by coastal expert Dr. William Cleary. He points out the USGS has given North Topsail Beach a "moderate risk" of vulnerability to sea level rise using their Coastal Vulnerability Index (CVI), which "clearly does not support nor validate the opinion of Pilkey and Neal (2009)".

The book documents that about 79% of NFIP subsidized policies are in counties that rank in the top 30% of home values, while less than 1% of the policies are in counties that rank in the bottom 30%. Many of the subsidies are for second homes of wealthy home owners. “We subsidize their flood insurance, and when their houses are destroyed, we provide emergency relief funding to rebuild their homes. This welfare for the rich must stop. In an age of climate change with rising seas and the increased severity of storms, we can no longer afford to hide the true costs of building in hazardous coastal areas. We must recognize that we do not owe anything to anyone foolish enough to build in such obviously dangerous places. Rather, we should penalize such behavior. Our tax money could be better spent encouraging and facilitating a planned and managed retreat from the coast—relocating people to higher ground instead of repeatedly rebuilding in many areas that we never should have built in the first place.”

Saving beaches in developed beachfront communities is a battle that cannot be won

The book documents that as sea levels rise, there have been two main ways to save beaches in developed beachfront communities like Miami Beach:

  1. Spending millions of dollars each year in beach nourishment projects that truck in sand or pump sand from the ocean floor onto the beach.
  2. Building hard structures like sea walls to protect buildings near the shore.

Neither of these approaches will work in the long run, the authors argue. Beach replenishment will grow prohibitively expensive, and building hard protection structures, over time, causes erosion of the beach, ultimately resulting in the loss of the beach.

What beach communities must do to prepare for the rising sea

The only answer to rising seas is to retreat, an October 2017 op-ed in The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) by two of the authors of the book, Dr. Orrin Pilkey and Keith Pilkey, summarized well many of the key recommendations of the book. None of these are on anyone’s to-do list, they argue:

▪  Do not build any more large buildings in beach communities as these structures reduce the flexibility of a community’s response to sea level rise.
▪  Do not rebuild storm-damaged buildings.
▪  Move or demolish buildings that interfere with beach processes, such as the seasonal changes in beach shape.
▪  Do not allow beach nourishment to be the justification for increasing the density of development as this only promotes putting more buildings at risk.
▪  Do not build seawalls if you want a beach for future generations.
▪  Plan now for retreat.

Overall: 3 ½ stars out of 4

Retreat From a Rising Sea is well-written, easy to read, and has a message that needs to be clearly heard and acted upon. It has a very nice central photo section with 29 color pictures of storm damage and vulnerable coastal construction. The only fault I found with the book is that it lacks story-telling, which was a major strength of my favorite book on sea level rise, the fabulous The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, published in 2017 by Jeff Goodell. Retreat From a Rising Sea is $19.95 from Amazon (paperback). Overall, I give it 3 ½ stars out of 4.

Related cat6 posts

Sea Level Rise is Accelerating, Says Unnerving New Research, our post yesterday.

Our December review of Jeff Goodell’s 2017 must-read book on sea level rise, The Water Will ComeRising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.

Why Is It So Hard to Fix the National Flood Insurance Program?, our November 2017 post.

Blockbuster Assessment: Humans Likely Responsible For Virtually All Global Warming Since 1950s, our November 2017 post detailing the U.S. government’s official science findings on sea level rise.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

author image

Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology at the University of Michigan. He worked for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990 as a flight meteorologist.

Recent Articles


Category 6 Sets Its Sights Over the Rainbow

Bob Henson

Section: Miscellaneous


Alexander von Humboldt: Scientist Extraordinaire

Tom Niziol

Section: Miscellaneous


My Time with Weather Underground (and Some Favorite Posts)

Christopher C. Burt

Section: Miscellaneous