PEP Members Spearhead Solutions to Shoreline Erosion
Communities throughout the Gulf Coast face difficult decisions in how to best manage and adapt to shoreline erosion. Man-made disturbances, rising sea levels, and larger, more power storms have resulted in severe shoreline erosion over the past several decades. Partners for Environmental Progress member organizations are stepping up to tackle these issues by protecting, enhancing, and restoring coastal habitats, the state’s greatest economic and environmental asset.
Alabama’s white sand beaches and coastal dunes are naturally dynamic. The ever-changing shoreline is shaped by fluctuations in sea level, wave action, Gulf currents, prevailing winds, storms, erosion, and deposition. This results in a diversity of habitats that defend against storm surge and flooding, provide critical habitat for fish, crabs, and oysters, and serve as havens for migratory birds and other wildlife.
Man-made environments, on the other hand, are static. Buildings and infrastructure are largely incompatible with the natural movement of coastlines and dunes. Historic attempts to tame and stabilize shorelines, along with other human disturbances, have negatively impacted the resiliency of coastal habitats and their ability to rebound from hurricanes, flooding, and erosion. Destruction of coastal habitats leaves man-made environments more vulnerable to natural disasters and negatively impacts local fisheries.
Working in Harmony with Nature
According to Scott Douglass, P.h.D., professor emeritus at the University of Southa Alabama’s Department of Civil, Coastal and Environmental Engineering, beach erosion is a natural phenomenon. ‘All barrier islands move,’ he says, ‘Beaches move. Beach erosion becomes a problem, through, when you have property lines and buildings and infrastructure. In modern history, a lot of beach erosion wasn’t just natural. It’s been clearly documented all over the world that humans have accelerated it because we blocked sand movement down the coast through structures, inlets, jetties, etc. In the big picture, three things cause erosion at Dauphin Island: sea level rise, storm activity and sand supply.’
As improved transportation opened the island to development, people began building throughout the unprotected west end of the island, including homes built right on the beach. Forests were cut, dunes leveled, and marshes filled. Exposed and unprotected, these new developments are vulnerable to storms and erosion, as evidenced by the destruction brought on by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the ongoing shoreline erosion. Desperate to save their homes, some homeowners have built seawalls, which protect one patch of land only to increase erosion on the adjacent shoreline.
The challenges facing Dauphin Island are echoed throughout the region, yet there are no easy answers when it comes to erosion. The best solution is the least popular, give fragile coastal environments back to nature and resettle elsewhere. Short of that, multi-faceted approaches including habitat rehabilitation and shoreline protection can ease erosion.
Shoreline Protection: Oyster Reefs at Helen Wood Park
With more than one-third of Mobile Bay’s shoreline stabilized by bulkheads and other man-made structures, protecting the remaining natural coastal habitats is crucial. Coastal marshes provide critical habitat essential to native species and loca