Can We Stop Erosion From Destroying Our Beaches?

Storm waves erode beaches, particularly in the current context of sea level rise.
David Rius & Núria Tuca/Moment/Getty Images

Unfortunately for beach lovers and owners of high-priced beach-front homes, coastal erosion in any form is usually a one-way trip. Man-made techniques such as beach nourishment—whereby sand is dredged from offshore sources and deposited along otherwise vanishing beaches—may slow the process, but nothing short of global cooling or some other major geomorphic change will stop it altogether.

Beach Erosion Not Simply “Shifting Sands”

According to Stephen Leatherman (“Dr. Beach”) of the National Healthy Beaches Campaign, beach erosion is defined by the actual removal of sand from a beach to deeper water offshore or alongshore into inlets, tidal shoals and bays. Such erosion can result from any number of factors, including the simple inundation of the land by rising sea levels resulting from the melting of the polar ice caps.

Beach Erosion is an Ongoing Problem

Leatherman cites U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of the sandy beaches along America’s coastlines have been eroding for decades. In many of these cases, individual beaches may be losing only a few inches per year, but in some cases, the problem is much worse. The outer coast of Louisiana, which Leatherman refers to as “the erosion ‘hot spot’ of the U.S.,” is losing some 50 feet of beach every year.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew was particularly damaging to southeastern US beaches, damaging 42% of South Carolina beaches. According to the USGS, the damage was also widespread in Georgia and Florida, with 30 and 15% of beaches affected, respectively. The beaches across all of Florida's Flagler County were 30 feet narrower after the storm. 

Is Global Warming Accelerating Beach Erosion?

Of particular concern is the effect climate change has on beach erosion. The issue is not only the sea level rise but also increases the severity and the frequency of harsh storms, “While sea level rise sets the conditions for landward displacement of the shore, coastal storms supply the energy to do the ‘geologic work’ by moving the sand off and along the beach,” writes Leatherman on his website. “Therefore, beaches are greatly influenced by the frequency and magnitude of storms along a particular shoreline.” 

What Can You Do Personally to Stop Beach Erosion? Not Much

Besides collectively lowering our greenhouse gas emissions substantially, there is little that individuals—let alone coastal landowners—can do to stop beach erosion. Building a bulkhead or seawall along one or a few coastal properties may protect homes from damaging storm waves for a few years, but could end up doing more harm than good. “Bulkheads and seawalls may accelerate beach erosion by reflecting wave energy off the facing wall, impacting adjacent property owners as well,” writes Leatherman, adding that such structures along retreating shorelines eventually cause diminished beach width and even loss.

Slowing or Stopping Beach Erosion is Possible, but Pricey

Other larger scale techniques like beach nourishment may have better track records, at least in terms of slowing or delaying beach erosion but are expensive enough as to necessitate massive taxpayer expenditures. In the early 1980s, the city of Miami spent some $65 million adding sand to a 10-mile stretch of fast-eroding shoreline. Not only did the effort stave off erosion, it helped revitalize the tony South Beach neighborhood and rescue hotels, restaurants and shops there that cater to the rich and famous.