Tuesday, June 18, 2013

NJ Sense & Wising Up to the Climate Crisis

This blog post is spurred by my comments about Mayor Bloomberg and his hopes for keeping the rising waters out of New York City.

This blog post isn't for the friends I grew up with in New Jersey, and those in Philadelphia that I spent a decade living and working with. You already know this.

This blog post is for the friends I've made in the last few decades, living in Chicago and traveling around the country. You may not know about New Jersey.

First of all: isn't it amazing that New Jersey really looks like New Jersey? Now that's a state with some shape to it . . . .

And of course, a lot of that shape is the part bordering the ocean, what we in New Jersey refer to as "the shore" (never "the beach").

Over the years, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a lot of time at the part of the Jersey shore known as Long Beach Island. It is a barrier island, part of a string that runs up and down the U.S. East Coast. My kids still spend weeks there every summer, and wouldn't miss it for the world.

The shore is really just a narrow strip of sand -- in places just a few blocks wide -- separating the ocean from a bay.

One of the things that was most interesting to me, back when I used to go to the shore a lot, was the way people couldn't resist sinking a lot of money into building expensive houses there. A topic that was frequently discussed was that it was really expensive to insure those houses, because it seemed like it was just a matter of time until the ocean came along and reclaimed them. There was much talk of the kind of engineering (breakwaters, retaining walls, etc.) that might be deployed to keep the ocean at arms length. We frequently tsk-tsked over the fact that the island was, after all, nothing more than sand -- not very sturdy at all.

Every summer, when we were in Harvey Cedars, we would look at the pictures from the year that the hurricane sent the ocean pouring through across the island, uniting island and bay. (That was the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 -- the big storm before Hurricane Sandy.)

We also gave due respect to the dunes -- an area that was fenced off and allowed to grow organically, free from human meddling. We talked a lot about how fragile the dunes are, and how important it is to let them develop naturally.

So I wasn't surprised to discover books of Orrin H. Pilkey on barrier island ecology saying that the natural order of things -- a flexible boundary made of sand that can "roll with the punches" dealt out by the ocean and storms -- is actually a the best possible protection for the coastal area. However, it needs to be understood that the "barrier" succeeds by not being rigid, but by moving about as needed. Much of the human engineering done to "stabilize" the ecosystem with stone and cement is counterproductive.

That is why a lot of questions have arisen about the post-Sandy rebuilding of the Jersey shore.

And that is why I highlighted the expert's comment about Mayor Bloomberg's plan: "[E]veryone needs to understand that you can’t guarantee protection for infrastructure that is in vulnerable locations, no matter how much money you throw at the problem." It's time for us to talk about root causes: the climate crisis.