Coast News

Stronger Waves Worry Coastal Communities

If you live in a low-lying area, the prospect of sea level rise is not a welcome one. But if you rely on a sandy shoreline to keep water at bay, new research says you could be facing a one-two punch that will make the future even more threatening.


Scientists with The Nature Conservancy recently published findings gleaned from looking at some 60 years of wave energy data, which found that waves have been getting stronger in recent years compared to decades past.

Much as with sea level rise, the increase in wave strength is not uniform, with greater increases in the southern hemisphere and more mixed results in the northern – less on the U.S. West Coast and Europe, more on the U.S. East Coast and Caribbean. These findings also note that other climatic events (such as the El Nino currently in force) can similarly affect wave energy, among other impacts.

As any coastal scientist will tell you, high water causes flooding and big waves carry sand away. So stronger waves and higher water levels presage the potential for more erosion.

There are three areas where this new research can come into play for coastal communities:

• How we manage our coasts will need to factor in this potential for greater wave erosion. That means wider beaches and higher dunes in areas where upland properties must be protected, as well as possibly modified schedules for restorations and methods to secure (or recycle) sand to keep it in the system longer and respond to storms faster.
• How we address coastal building is likewise in need of a closer review. The mantra of “building higher, stronger and further back” will be more crucial than ever, as will how communities address properties that face increasing and repetitive flood or storm losses in a way that balance private property rights with that community’s ability to protect endangered sites.
• Finally, the cumulative impact of stronger waves and rising water levels will require innovation to protect coastal cities, ports and other vital infrastructure that simply cannot be abandoned, moved back or raised significantly higher. Every new super-storm event underscores the coastal risks so many areas face, and we must shift from a reactive to a proactive approach to stay safe and ahead of the next rising risk.

Obviously, more study of wave energy and its impact is necessary, as is a better understanding of how the variety of natural (and manmade) forces could interplay to create new challenges (and, we hope, opportunities). If we’re drastically remaking the oceans and consequent coastal impacts as so many predict (and data is supporting), we need sound science and engineering to help us understand what’s happening, to predict how it will change our coastal conditions and to prepare accordingly.

From the cliffs of California to the beaches of Florida, from low-lying cities such as New Orleans to the vulnerable subterranean infrastructure of, say, New York City, we have a lot at risk from strong waves and rising tides. Coastal scientists, engineers, advocates and residents need to be ready to make the changes necessary to manage those risks and protect our country’s invaluable shorelines.

For more on beach and shore preservation, visit here.

ECO Magazine is a marine science publication committed to bringing scientists and professionals the latest ground-breaking research, industry news, and job opportunities from around the world.


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