Sea Level and the Jersey Shore
Guest Essay by Kip Hansen – 22 March 2021
Dr. Judith Curry has been writing about Sea Levels and New Jersey [and here], spurred on by a request for an evaluation of the topic from the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA). The NJBIA is concerned because a study by a team of sea level researchers at Rutgers University has called for “draconian policies unsupported by science” that would “harm our economy today” by overreacting to “legitimate concerns about climate change, sea level rise, and flooding”. Dr. Curry’s full report is titled: “Assessment of projected sea level rise scenarios for the New Jersey Coast”.
Dr. Curry’s CFAN report contains this summary:
The summary conclusions of the CFAN Review are:
— The sea level projections provided by the Rutgers Report are substantially higher than those provided by the IPCC, which is generally regarded as the authoritative source for policy making. The sea level rise projections provided in the Rutgers Report, if taken at face value, could lead to premature decisions related to coastal adaptation that are unnecessarily expensive and disruptive.
— Scenarios out to 2050 for sea level rise and hurricane activity should account for scenarios of variability in multi-decadal ocean circulation patterns.
— Best practices in adapting to sea level rise use a framework suitable for decision making under deep uncertainty. The general approach of Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways is recommended for sea level rise adaptation on the New Jersey coast.
I wrote a piece here at WUWT a year ago, titled “Atlantic City: I’ll meet you tonite…..”, prompted by the Governor of New Jersey’s executive order stating that “New Jersey has set a goal of producing 100 percent clean energy by 2050.” and “New Jersey will become the first state to require that builders take into account the impact of climate change, including rising sea levels, in order to win government approval for projects.” The sea level rise part of this executive order was based on an earlier draft of the same study by researchers at Rutgers University.
My Bottom Line in regards to sea level rise and building codes and restrictions for New Jersey was this:
“New Jersey, like many of the Atlantic states, has allowed unchecked development of its barrier islands, mostly over the last 70 years — placing billions of dollars of infrastructure at risk along with a million lives. If the “threat” of climate change is a necessary goad to change this foolish behavior, then at least something good has come of the climate change scare. It is long past time to rein in this self-destructive over-development of such fragile and by-nature-ephemeral environments.”
Currently about 500,000 people live year-round in single-family homes and one- and two-story apartments houses (along with some high-rise condominiums) on the “barrier islands” of New Jersey, such as the Barnegat Peninsula. These barriers islands are sand-bars (or barrier-bars) thrown up over the years by Atlantic storms and are occasionally torn down and cut into smaller pieces by those same Atlantic storms, including hurricanes.
Barrier bars or beaches are exposed sandbars that may have formed during the period of high-water level of a storm or during the high-tide season. During a period of lower mean sea level they become emergent and are built up by swash and wind-carried sand; this causes them to remain exposed. Barrier bars are separated from beaches by shallow lagoons and cut the beach off from the open sea. They occur offshore from coastal plains except where the coasts are rocky; where the tidal fluctuation is great (more than 2 1/2 metres [8 feet]); or where there is little wave activity or sand. Barrier bars are common along low coasts, as off the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, where they parallel straight beaches. They often are cut by tidal inlets and are connected by underwater tidal deltas; they convert irregular shorelines to nearly straight ones. [ source ]
For an example, we can look at Mantoloking, which was impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Note that Mantoloking is “the second-wealthiest community in the state [New Jersey], is known for its Shingle-style houses overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay. The Mantoloking Yacht Club has produced Olympic-champions.” Let me translate that for readers: Mantoloking is a little town exclusively for millionaires. The median value for homes there is $1,305,600.00 (don’t mistake that median as a mean (average) value, the mean value is much much higher).
Hurricane Sandy, October 2012, neatly cut NJ’s barrier island at Mantoloking. It is interesting to note that the more common complaint about Atlantic storms is beach erosion, that they remove sand from the beaches, thus narrowing them. In this case, Sandy added to the beach at Mantoloking.
A couple of things to note from the slide show: Back in 1985, they were using bulldozers to build a protective dune between the sea and the main highway. By 2012, the entire strip between the highway and the dune had been filled with houses. Hurricane Sandy cut a new inlet from the Atlantic Ocean into the enclosed sound, but in the rebuilding it was filled back in with sand. In the present, there are four or five beach-front lots remaining empty. This view is current as seen from the north. Just north a bit more up the highway, less than a mile, the comparatively small house at 1007 Main Ave, right on the beach, was recently sold for $4,500,000.
Shortly after the disaster, in which these poor unfortunate millionaires were inconvenienced by Hurricane Sandy, CNN ran a seven-minute video segment on “this little town fighting back”. No mention is made of the fact these are the exclusive mostly-summer homes of millionaires.
One salient fact is that the main intersection in Mantoloking, the corner of Highway 37 (which comes over the bridge and causeway from the mainland) and Ocean Ave (the main drag running north and south) is shown on Google Earth to have an altitude of minus 4 feet. Now, that may be off by a few feet, but we can certainly know from that fact that the whole town is approximately at today’s relative sea level and its Mean High High Water, within a foot or two. Yet, with the exception of those few still-empty beach-front lots, Mantoloking has been totally built back, with larger more expensive homes.
The Jersey Shore does not need to look to the future to see pending disaster – these communities are already at existential risk from the sea levels of today. They were at existential risk from the sea levels of the past 50 years. They will be become only minimally more at risk in the future.
When there is enough money involved, all the rule books are thrown out the window. I don’t think that New Jersey will ever really pass — or if passed, enforce — building restrictions on the rich and super-rich. It is only the middle-classes that will bear the brunt of new restrictive building codes that will, in the end, mean that only the rich and super-rich can afford to ignore the obvious, present-day threats of building homes on ephemeral sandbars – if their beach house gets swept away, insurance will build it back and in the meantime, they can live in their third home in the woods of Vermont or New Hampshire or move temporarily to their condo in the islands.
In the long-run, there is no preserving the barrier islands of New Jersey or truly protecting the human developments there. They are naturally temporary and changeable. Nature will do with them as it sees fit in the natural order of things.
Enforcing building codes to “hurricane proof” homes or to raise highways will only bring temporary respite from the reality that barrier islands come and go over time and nothing we humans can do will change that natural order.
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In our sailboat boat, on our trips to and from the islands, we sailed past the back-yards of many of these millionaire enclaves that crowd the Atlantic barrier islands of the United States. These trips are done in the early Spring (headed north) and the not-too-late Fall (headed south). Most of the mansions were empty, it being off-season for the rich.
In the Carolinas, we had friends that were marooned for weeks on barrier islands that had been cut off from the mainland by Hurricane Irene. These hard-working folks had lived and worked the sounds, fishing and building work boats, for generations. Their lives were mostly enhanced by the idiocy of the rich buying here-today-gone-tomorrow bits of sand and building homes that these regular folks could never even imagine being able to afford.
There seems no end to human stupidity. (and I don’t exclude myself . . . you ought to read my as-yet-unwritten autobiography.)
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