Responding to a book by Orrin H Pilkey, Linda Jarvis-Pilkey, and Keith C. Pilkey (Columbia University Press, 2016)
Most of my experience at the beach has been along the Pacific shore, with rocky bluffs, compact beaches, and beach communities interspersed. In more recent times, my attention has been enlarged to include beaches along the Atlantic shore, especially in Florida where one of my sons and his wife established their home in 1984—briefly near Miami and then near Orlando. In later years, they have lived on barrier islands, first New Smyrna Beach and now Amelia Island, Florida’s northern-most tract of land.
In preparation for my 2020 winter visit, I decided to learn more about the current state of the perpetual battle between land and sea. With my bicycle, I can ride up and down the island, stopping at beach entry points along the way. I can talk with people, permanent residents and winter visitors. And I can read—full-length, scholarly books, papers accessed on-line, and other materials available in local bookstores and the Nassau County Library in Fernandina Beach.
Looking for a book to take with me, I discovered the writings of Orrin H. Pilkey, born in 1934 and now retired from a career as professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University. By himself or with others, he has published many books on this topic—nineteen according to one list. Two titles caught my eye: A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands (2003) and Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change (2016). Since the more recent was immediately available from my Indianapolis library, that’s the one with which my reading has begun. Co-authors are his geologist daughter Linda Pilkey-Jarvis and lawyer son Keith C. Pilkey.
Although only two pages in length, the book’s “Foreword,” contributed by the Santa Aquila Foundation,” summarizes the issues which the Pilkeys address. “For the past two centuries, two trends have been steady and clear around the United States. Sea level has been rising, and more people have been moving closer to the coast.” Referring to statistics from the United Nations, the Foreword states that “half of the world’s population lives within 40 miles of the sea, and three quarters of all large cities are located on the coast. Furthermore, most of the world’s megacities, with more that 2.5 million inhabitants, are in the coastal zone” (p. vi).
With a more accusatory tone, the Foreword continues: “Modern humankind appears to be the only species on earth whose propensity is to migrate its habitat counter-intuitively, ruled solely by will, preference, greed, and most dangerously, a sense of technological and engineering invulnerability against nature’s changes” (p. vii).
The first chapter describes Miami and New Orleans, cities that are among the most endangered of any cities in the world. Although the geological and weather-related factors differ significantly, both cities face what would seem to be irresolvable prospects. After discussing, in later chapters, the challenges faced by other cities around the world, the authors describe various ways in which people everywhere, and especially in the United States “deny, debate, and delay” the inexorable conflict between sea level and coastal shores. The only adequate response, they affirm, is to plan orderly retreats from the locations where the dangers are increasing and the outcomes inexorably destructive.
When I asked my son what he and his neighbors think about these matters, he stated that on Amelia Island, in contrast to many beach communities in Florida, development is inside the dunes rather than on the ocean side. Natural protections are still in place. Here the problems of greatest import are hurricanes and storm surges. As for his own home, it is on one of the highest parts of the island and has more secure access to the mainland than is available in many coastal communities. He showed little anxiety about their future on Florida’s northern-most barrier island.
On one of my bike rides—ten miles down to the George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier at the southern tip of the island—I talked with a Virginia couple, probably in their eighties, who are spending a few days in a condo near where we were sitting in the warm sunshine. The husband, a retired geologist and university professor, discounted the seriousness of sea-level rise. When I mentioned the Pilkey book, they laughed because the two men are well-acquainted through academic activities. “When we were planning own beach home,” they told me, “Orrin tried hard to keep us from building. We built it there anyway.”
Like most of us, I fear, they plan to wait a while before beginning their inevitable retreat.