How to Care for an Island



by A. Jerome Walnut

President of the Conservation Society of LBI

Alliance for a Living Ocean

2007 Long Beach Boulevard
North Beach Haven, New Jersey 08008

(609) 492-0222

Perhaps I should open this essay with the question, "Why should we care for Long Beach Island?" Despite all of the crowded construction that has occurred here, over the past few decades, it is still beautiful, and its beaches are among the best in the world. It needs our care because some of the factors that make it so attractive also make it very vulnerable.

New Jersey's barrier island beaches, and especially those of Long Beach Island, are composed of clean, white, coarse quartz sand, which makes a comfortable surface for walking, sunbathing, and most other shore activities. This is in contrast to European cobble beaches, which tend to be rocky, and tropical coral beaches, which - to judge by my experience - tend to be gritty. Our beaches really are unusual, and we probably take them for granted. However, they are a precious resource, and in the attempt to preserve property, we must be careful not to do anything that would damage or reduce these clean, spacious expanses. New Jersey's barrier island beaches, and especially those of Long Beach Island, are composed of clean, white, coarse quartz sand, which makes a comfortable surface for walking, sunbathing, and most other shore activities. This is in contrast to European cobble beaches, which tend to be rocky, and tropical coral beaches, which - to judge by my experience - tend to be gritty. Our beaches really are unusual, and we probably take them for granted. However, they are a precious resource, and in the attempt to preserve property, we must be careful not to do anything that would damage or reduce these clean, spacious expanses.

Because our barrier island is built of, and based on, this high-quality sand, it is open to erosion and flooding. Their is nothing new about this, the historical record gives ample evidence of this tendency, particularly at the two ends of the island. By comparing old maps, one can see that the Barnegat Inlet was about a mile north of its present position a century ago. Similar comparisons made at Holgate would show that an inlet has cut through there, silted up, and eroded, yet more, since the turn of the century. It looks as if the two inlets are working towards each other. Shortly after the 1962 storm, a series of maps were drawn up to show the evolution of Long Beach Island's coastline over the years. They very clearly showed that the shore was being eaten away, however, the section around Ship Bottom and Surf City appeared to be comparatively stable.

A further complicating factor is, "The Greenhouse Effect", leading to a rise in sea-level. For us, the possible vertical rise of a foot or so per century (as hypothesized by some) would be cause for concern. What is just as important to bear in mind is that this could lead to horizontal flooding of about one hundred feet, which would put much of our bay-front under water. Many scientists subscribe to this theory, and others seem to think that we are located along a subsiding coastline; where the effect would be the same. In either case, it is hard to argue with the tidal gauges of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which have shown a creeping inundation since the 1930s.

Classic theory on coastal morphology dictates that barrier islands, such as Long Beach Island, move across themselves toward the mainland, if left to their own devices. More empirical evidence seems to confirm this. Sometimes clumps of compressed turf are exposed on our beaches after severe storms. These are made up of the same sort of vegetation that now grows on the island in Barnegat Bay, which leads to the conclusion that the island one time existed where our beaches are now. Since this vegetation could not flourish without the shelter of a barrier island protecting it from the open sea, the inference is that what was then Long Beach Island must have been located to the east of its present position and has since migrated to the west. All of this leaves us with the picture of a low, sandy, unstable strip of land that seems to be in constant motion.


To some degree, we sometimes unwittingly contribute to this situation when we seek to stabilize the coast by building fixed, protective structures such as groins, seawalls or bulkheads. Groins have often the unhappy effect of building up sand on one side but cutting away on the other. Bulkheads and sea walls can protect property and buildings, but at the price of reducing or eliminating the beach in front of them. Bulkheads are eventually subject to undermining, and there is often a disposition for tides or currents to curl around their ends and scour, thus cracking neighboring properties. What one needs, to cope with ocean waves and currents, is the combination of wide, gently sloping beaches and well-stabilized sand dunes for protection. Good, sturdy dunes are an obvious bulwark against flooding and erosion, but people do not always realize that wide beaches are needed to absorb the energy of the oncoming waves before they even reach the dunes. Unless this energy is absorbed, the waves will simply batter against anything in their way, usually with destructive results. The problem here is to provide room for such beaches to form.

Beach replenishment seeks to achieve this object, and it probably does less damage than bulkheads, seawalls and groins. However, the sand thus deposited on the beaches should closely match what is already there, and the new sand is just as subject to washing away as what it replaces. In that sense, this is not a permanent solution, and the whole process may well have to be repeated every few years. Eventually, this could get to be an expensive process, and at present it looks as if the supply of good, high-quality beach sand is not inexhaustible. Some studies have indicated that not much new sand is being fed into the system, and the process of building up and chewing away our beaches is using essentially the same supply of sand that has been there since the time of the glaciers. So, from this point of view, we are probably forced back, on using, or conserving, what resources we now have at hand.

As dramatic as the situation may be along our ocean coast, we might remember that there are some problems along our bay shore as well. By dredging lagoons and channels, we have impeded the natural process of Long Beach Island's "leap frogging" across itself towards the mainland, so, in a sense we are confronted with erosion on both the ocean and the bay. Moreover, much of the land on the west side of the island has been "filled in" over bay meadow, in the past fifty years. As bay meadow, it could either absorb rainfall, drain it off or hold it harmlessly during floods. Now that it is largely built upon or paved over, it can do none of these. Thus, a very valuable natural drainage system has been badly crippled. Barnegat Bay itself seems to have shown an increasing tendency to hold back water (not to drain out fully) over the past few years and this results in more flooding in low-lying areas. This all imposes a severe strain on our drainage system, and cannot be expected to improve with time; especially as we put more buildings in the affected area.


It seems to me that several key points emerge:

  • Long Beach Island is a very vulnerable, unstable platform on which to build, and we must candidly recognize the problems it presents.
  • People should not be encouraged to build in hazardous locations.
  • Our man-made drainage system should be made as efficient as possible, and we should consider setting aside whatever open bay meadow we have, for its flood-absorbing benefits.
  • We should encourage the use of permeable materials for driveways, parking lots, etc. so as to help drainage, and we should discourage the wholesale alteration of natural vegetation and terrain.
  • Our beaches and dunes should be strongly protected and encouraged.
There's much more that can be done, but these would certainly be a good start!

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