For six decades, Orrin Pilkey has written, taught, and preached about the beauty of barrier islands and the extraordinary risk of building in coastal floodplains. In more than 40 books, 250 scientific papers and journal articles, and countless opinion pieces, Pilkey has fashioned a vision of coasts as dynamic, living landscapes, with their own personalities, quirks and flaws, “not unlike people,” he says.
To the extent that America has a public conscience of its coasts, it just may be the voluble marine geologist, a short, hobbit-like figure who for decades wore an unruly gray beard like the wizard Gandalf. Pilkey warned about interfering with the natural processes of shorelines and questioned developers, politicians, and engineers who helped to fill the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts with trillions of dollars of vacation houses, investment properties, and businesses, often subsidized with generous federal tax dollars.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone appreciated his message. Some beach town mayors viewed Pilkey as the Antichrist. “I hate him, hate him, hate him,” bellowed the mayor of one of the largest and richest beach towns in New Jersey — this after Pilkey observed that the shoreline there was rapidly eroding. In 1991, the town council of Folly Beach, South Carolina, even passed a resolution condemning Pilkey’s research as “insulting, uninformed, and radical.” Pilkey framed the resolution and hung it on his office wall.
Now 84, the former Duke University professor is still busy and has a new book on sea level rise coming out next August. With growing concerns about sea level rise and another year of catastrophic hurricanes (2018’s Florence and Michael), it seemed like a good time to talk with Pilkey about how his ideas have evolved over time, and what he sees as the biggest challenges ahead in an age of climate change, warming oceans, torrential rain storms, and more violent hurricanes.
Yale Environment 360: Recent reports by the United Nations and the National Climate Assessment highlight the risks of crowding the nation’s shorelines with risky property, and raise the possibility that millions may be forced to retreat to higher ground as the seas rise and hurricanes do more damage. You’ve been warning about these threats for decades, dating back to 1969, when Hurricane Camille wrecked your parents’ Mississippi retirement house. Was that a turning point in your career?
Orrin Pilkey: Yes, the loss of my parents’ house was the point at which I realized for the first time the immense power of the sea and the need to inform the world that building next to the shoreline is almost suicidal. The recent UN report and National Climate Assessment confirmed some of my worst fears about the future threats of flooding and storms. Yet people continue to build in risky places. In Waveland, Mississippi, where my parents retired to a house with 13 feet of elevation, I saw an example of a beachfront house that was destroyed by Hurricane Camille, a replacement house destroyed again by Hurricane Katrina (2005), and the vacant lot for sale for $80,000. A loud activist voice was needed.
“The question that needed to be answered was…Which is more important, beaches or buildings along our ocean shores?”
e360: You grew up in Washington State and were a smoke jumper for a time. How did you go from fighting fires to studying the coasts and earning a PhD in marine geology?
Pilkey: I first saw the ocean in Puget Sound as a teenager and was fascinated by the waves, the sea smells, and the infinite vistas. That love of the ocean continues to this day. But like me, I believe that many marine scientists have grown up far from the sea. The late Bruce Heezen, the father of marine geology, for example, grew up as an Iowa farm boy.
e360: You were one of the first coastal geologists to take a public stance about building in harm’s way, arguing that armoring the coasts with seawalls, rock groins, and other defenses was not sufficient. What was your thinking at the time?
Pilkey: I was primarily concerned that these devices were being sold as the way to save the beautiful beach cottage communities. When they didn’t work, which was the usual case, the excuse used by the engineers was that the storm that destroyed the devices was unusually severe and unexpected. It was clear that beaches were being destroyed in order to save oceanfront houses, with seawalls and other structures interfering with the natural flow of sand and accelerating erosion, and that a voice expressing that was severely needed. The question that needed to be answered from the standpoint of Americans everywhere was: Which is more important, beaches or buildings along our ocean shores?
e360: In some ways we appear to be going back to the future at the coasts. Charleston and Miami are building seawalls and giant pumps. New York City is planning for a huge surge gate. And Texans are trying to get the federal government to pay for a Dutch-style gate across the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel, in Galveston. In your view, will these steps work and, if so, for how long?
Pilkey: Protection of major cities is different from the protection of much smaller resort communities on barrier islands. Stabilizing the shoreline, that is, holding it still, may be a reasonable priority for portions of big cities, but not so for smaller tourist developments, which depend on a good beach. Hard structures, such as seawalls and groins, almost always eventually destroy the beach. Surge gates depend on the blind luck that no superstorms will occur and overtop or destroy them, and also depend on a low rate of sea level rise. Their lifetime is likely to be only a decade or two. It is also likely that many other coastal cities will clamor for a surge gate once one city has one. Can we afford construction and maintenance of these large structures in view of their questionable success? The Dutch have a small country, much of it below sea level, and there is no place to escape the coming sea level rise. Therefore, they must use extreme engineering. But Americans have plenty of room to retreat.
“Government support of beach development encourages more and more development, leading to more storm damage.”
e360: Hurricanes by far account for the costliest natural disasters in the U.S., with over $500 billion in damage in recent years, and the likelihood of even more catastrophic storms in the future. Yet Americans keep building in harm’s way, often with the aid of generous federal subsidies, including flood insurance, disaster aid, and Army Corps of Engineers’ beach repairs. Don’t these subsidies distort the risks, shifting them from private homeowners to public taxpayers, and make it harder to encourage people to retreat to higher ground?
Pilkey: Unquestionably, government support of beach development encourages more and more development, leading to more and more storm damage. The mentality is why retreat when the government is right there to help you put things back the way they were before the storm.
e360: I am thinking about Dauphin Island, off the coast of Alabama, which has been repeatedly battered by hurricanes and has received tens of millions in federal aid. After Katrina, in 2005, a few dozen homeowners wanted the government to buy their homes, so they could move inland, but there was no money. Why don’t buyouts work at the coast?
Pilkey: The western half of Dauphin Island is the least suitable location for development along the entire U.S. Gulf of Mexico. North Topsail Beach in North Carolina, is similarly vulnerable. Buyouts on Dauphin Island would make sense because serious damage has occurred there five times since 1973, mostly on the west end where all of the vacation homes are. The government would have saved money in the long run if they had purchased the damaged properties, but the extreme high price of beachfront buildings prevents the buyout approach. It’s a shame. Buying these vulnerable properties could be the first step in managed retreat.
e360: Increasingly, coastal communities are seeing regular flooding, largely as a result of rising seas. Miami has its King Tides. Areas of Norfolk, the Outer Banks and New Jersey now routinely flood in ordinary thunderstorms. What does your recent research tell us about what’s happening and what residents can expect?
Pilkey: The flooding that is occurring along the fringes of many American communities is called sunny-day flooding or nuisance flooding. These high tides correspond to spring tides but have been raised higher by sea level rise, and are the first concrete evidence of a rising sea. The highest of these nuisance floods are called King Tides, which occur three or four times a year. As sea level rises, nuisance flooding will penetrate further and further inland, threatening more property and resulting in more flood claims.
e360: The general scientific consensus is that we can expect about 3.5 feet of additional water by the end of the century. But if the ice sheets melt or sea level rise accelerates, we could see 6 to 8.5 feet, which would be catastrophic. By some estimates, up to a trillion dollars worth of coastal property could literally be under water. Will we likely see a mass migration from the coast at some point?
Pilkey: Millions of people will be fleeing drowned cities this century. Low-lying cities, such as Miami, Charleston, and New Orleans, and many barrier island communities, especially in Florida – Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Daytona Beach – are likely to produce huge numbers of evacuees. Miami alone will produce 4 million climate refugees, probably well before 2100. Currently, there are no plans to accommodate these refugees in inland cities. Even places with higher elevations will be at risk. Surrounding access roads at lower elevations may flood in storms or high tides and prevent residents from reaching businesses, schools, stores, and churches.
“Ghost towns are a likely element of our coasts by the end of this century. Complete loss of some communities is not impossible.”
e360: In a few coastal resorts we are beginning to see home buyers factor sea level rise and flood risks into the price of real estate. In Miami, condos at higher elevation carry a premium. How quickly do you see real estate prices at the coast sinking, and what impact do you expect that will have on future development?
Pilkey: I believe that we are due for a crash in the price of beachfront property. No one knows exactly when this will occur, but it is likely within a decade or two. There are already small price reductions occurring in some places. Probably sinking prices will cause a dramatic reduction in new beachfront development nationwide. Ghost towns are a likely element of our coasts by the end of this century. Complete loss of some communities is not impossible. Edingsville Beach in South Carolina, a town of 60 houses on a barrier island, disappeared in a major hurricane in 1893. Along the Holderness Coast in England, 26 towns are under water on the Continental Shelf.
e360: If you owned an oceanfront home, say in New Jersey, what would you do?
Pilkey: If I owned a house in view of the sea, I would remember that along our coastal plains, if you can see the sea, the sea can see you. If I opted to stay, I would first investigate the evacuation routes. I would want to know what the biggest storm on record did to the coast there. Very likely, I would move my home well back from the shoreline. Better yet, I would probably look into the feasibility of moving it to the mainland. One other temporary useful alternative would be to raise the building to allow storm surge to flow underneath it. Most likely, however, I would sell.