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Constituency of Ignorance
Bolivar Peninsula, Texas

This post simply reproduces a passage from Against the Tide, a nice introductory survey of the American coastal built environment, by New York Times science editor Cornelia Dean. The littoral landscape is a continuing fascination here, and this post is but another iteration of this meme. There will be others, with those that had come before, including this one, acting collectively as a prologue.

So, quoting at length:

Almost half of all construction in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s took place in coastal areas, and demographers estimate that by the year 2000, 80 percent of Americans will live within an hour's drive off the coast. By 2010, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration says, population density along ocean coasts will be almost four hundred people per square mile, as against less than one hundred per square mile for the rest of the nation.

But the coast is not a stable landscape. Inlets open, heal, and reform. Seaside cliffs erode and slump. Sand shifts. Though we think of the land as terra firma, when we go the beach on a stormy day we can watch geological change occur before our eyes.

Much of this development began before science was able to say precisely what was happening in the geology of the coast. Even today much remains unknown about what happens in the mysterious region where air, water, and land meet. For one thing, research can be difficult to conduct; studying the surfzone is notoriously labor-intensive, unpleasant, and dangerous. Even worse, the nation's increasing commitment to living on the beach has created a powerful force against the application of knowledge already in hand. There is a kind of constituency of ignorance, people who have so much invested in coastal real estate that they do not want to hear how vulnerable it is.

The biggest burst of development on the coast has occurred since about 1970, during a period in which there have been unusually few coastal storms, particularly hurricanes. If weather patterns were now to return to those earlier years in the twentieth century, the property damage and loss of life could be devastating. On top of that, sea level is rising; if the earth is warming, and mainstream climatologists believe it is, the situation will only get worse. Geologists say 70 percent of the saltwater coastline of the lower forty-eight states is eroding, and some put the figure at closer to 90 percent. The Galveston solution—armoring—can hold off the sea, but only for a while. The best shore protection is a wide, healthy beach. No amount of rock or concrete can make a beach wider. And Nature always bats last at the coast.

To be continued, of course.
  • Jamie
  • September 18, 2008 at 10:56:00 PM CDT
  • The wise man built his house upon a rock... the rains came down and the floods came up and the house upon the rock stood still.

    The foolish man built his house upon the sand... the rains came down and the floods came up and the house on the sand washed away.

    Gee, when was that parable written in the bible? You'd think after all this time, humanity would get a clue.

  • Blaize
  • September 19, 2008 at 12:12:00 AM CDT
  • The Bolivar Peninsula should be turned into a nature preserve. Though, in Texas (as well as the rest of the US), that idea has a snowball's chance in hell.

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