A Conversation with Stewart Farrell

Stewart Farrell, Director of Stockton College's Coastal Research Center, discusses climate change and its effect on the Jersey shore earlier this month in Port Republic. (The Press of Atlantic City/Staff Photo by Michael Ein)

Michael Ein

In the days after Hurricane Sandy struck the Jersey Shore, Stewart Farrell and his researchers at the Port Republic-based Coastal Research Center were among the first on the scene in flood-ravaged beach towns. Farrell spoke with The Press of Atlantic City about how life at the shore will be affected by Sandy and its aftermath, and what effects climate change will have on the region’s future.

Q: Talk a little bit about yourself and the Coastal Research Center and some of its work.

A: I started here in 1971 after doing graduate work at the University of Massachusetts. And with the advent of the marine science program, my part of it was physical sciences: geology, marine science of a physical nature. That’s tides, currents, storms, winds, waves and sediments that are part of that equation.

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In 1981, the borough of Avalon asked for some special help, and several students and myself went down and we did some work for the environmental commission. Then we had Hurricane Gloria in 1985, and the state of New Jersey found itself in need of some verification of storm damage to various beaches along the Jersey coast, and they really didn’t have any pre-storm data. They had plenty of data after the storm — “Oh, we better go out and survey what happened.” But they had nothing to bounce it off of pre-storm.

So then-Sen. Bill Bradley acquired congressional authorization and funding for New Jersey to do something about its problem of documentation. One of the things that it did do was set up the New Jersey Beach Profiles Network, which we’ve been doing since the fall of 1986, twice a year, with 105 stations surveyed for the last 26 years. So we have a very large set of data associated with those stations, plus additional work we’ve been doing for municipalities, counties and for FEMA, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers. So that’s basically who we work with, and the products are information, data, surveys, maps — information that flows to the decision-makers and policy-makers.

Q: What do you think will be the most pressing coastal issues in the immediate future?

A: Storm damage can be divided into two main parts. One is the tidal surge flooding, which affected everywhere, increasing toward the north into New York Harbor. The other has to do with the wave damage associated with the incoming storm during the two tides it was active on Monday, the 29th of October.

And so the tidal surge is one aspect where flooding is flooding and, unless you were high enough, you got flooded. The storm and wave damage associated with the storm has to do with what kind of barriers were present between the damageable things — homes, streets, roads, boardwalks, businesses — and the storm, whether seawalls or bulkheads or a combination of dunes. All of this stuff was part of that equation, and that varied tremendously between Cape (May) and Atlantic counties and Ocean and Monmouth counties to the north.

Q: What were some of the differences you saw between Atlantic and Cape May counties and Ocean and Monmouth counties?

A: It’s essentially the intensity of the storm. The second tide on Monday evening was blunted by the fact that the storm came ashore, the winds changed direction and essentially blew offshore in the latter parts of the storm. I saw two hours of total calm where I lived, starting around 9 o’clock at night.

That was very beneficial to the situation in Cape and Atlantic counties. Wave run-ups were 13 to 14 feet on the dunes, flooding was less and the duration of damaging waves at the dunes was correspondingly reduced. So 14- and 15-foot-high dunes survived, whereas up north, they were wiped out before the evening tide was half over, and much higher dunes were breached.

Q: Part of what Gov. Chris Christie is pushing now, and the lieutenant governor pushed when she toured Downbeach in late November, was more dune construction and more mitigation along those lines on the beachfront. Do you think that can be doable, looking at the fact that dune construction has been so controversial over the years because of the effect on views?

A: The view is only a problem if you want to stand landward of the dunes and see the ocean. If you have a 10-foot dune and a 12-foot storm surge, it doesn’t do much more than a speed bump does in a parking lot to stop a fleeing bank robber.

So the consequences of that are pretty obvious. Yes, you block the view and have the storm protection. Dune heights (needed) to stop a Sandy-sized event that hit Monmouth County and northern Ocean County are going to be double the height of existing dunes at, say, Atlantic City.

The other aspect of this that has not been discussed is the width of the beach that sits between the dune and the breaking waves. Because the first break of the waves, if it’s on the dune, rapidly accelerates the rate of dune erosion. We saw rates of erosion of 12 feet an hour. With a 10-hour storm, that means you have to have a 120-foot-thick dune — which is wider than the beach and dune system entirely in most cases where the damage was high.

Q: Looking at ‘rebuild vs. retreat,’ which has been talked about a lot — the idea that barrier islands are essentially a naturally shifting thing that man should never have built permanent structures on in the first place. What do you think is the long-term vision for barrier islands?

A: Well, geologically? We’re doomed. The sea level’s rising, and if it continues to rise at its present rate, we’re out of here by 2500.

That said, none of us are going to be here. So do we want to keep the house and keep the lot and keep living there for the rest of your 30, 40 years on the planet Earth? I’d say we’re going to go for it.

Now, where this development followed the knowledge that’s been gained in the last 40 years about barrier islands and beach behavior, Kiowah Island in South Carolina comes to mind. There, they restricted development to 1,000 feet from the dunes. They put a golf course between the dunes and the first house. You can play golf out there, in fact you can play golf on sand if you really want to, if it’s totally overwashed. So the houses are well back from any potential storm damage, other than tidal flooding. That you deal with by raising stuff up to an elevation that doesn’t get flooded.

In New Jersey, construction started in the 1880s, 1870s after the Civil War, and in some cases even before that. Cape May City and Long Branch had pre-war construction going. So by 2012, everything has been built already, and you either have to abandon it, clear it and turn it into beaches and sand, or you have to build better, stronger and smarter when you replace stuff.

Q: What areas in South Jersey are you most concerned about if there was a storm surge and a hit from a hurricane of the type that hit Ocean and Monmouth counties?

A: To this day, we’re still looking at northern Ocean County and Monmouth County, but mostly northern Ocean County and Long Beach Island as being the most vulnerable spots because there’s so much work that needs to be done to have a wider shoreline between the development and low tide — high tide/low tide, essentially the intertidal zone.

In many cases, after Hurricane Irene it was less than 20 feet from the cut in the dunes to the house. That meant that when you had something four or five times as powerful as Irene, it just went right through the house. Underneath it if it was on pilings — the house is still there, it’s just hard to get to.

And that amount of material has to be returned. The Army Corps’ design for Long Beach Island needs to be extended the length of the barrier (island), and also in northern Ocean County. That’s a 250-foot-wide dry beach, a 22-foot high dune, which is about 100 feet wide at its base. That will give you a great measure of storm protection, because in Brant Beach (in Long Beach Township), half of that dune is still standing.

Q: You mention how barrier islands change over time. Talk about Brigantine and its north vs. south and how it’s changed over time.

A: Humans have been involved in that story. Mostly a natural type of barrier, when a Sandy-type event happens, sand from the beach side washes onto the island and it is deposited into the lagoon or bay or marshes landward of the island. So the island moves effectively landward and upward in time as sea level rises.

In fact, you have to remember the whole story started 25,000 years ago with a 400-foot-lower sea level and a 70-mile drive across the coastal plain and continental shelf to the beach of that era. So it’s been going on for 25,000 years.

Now, what do you do with the rest of the situation in terms of how you focus attention on this? Basically you’ve got one story and one story alone. If you want to stay in place, you have to elevate, reinforce and do what you can, until you have to give it up because it’s just too much water and too much coming in at you. I mean, the Dutch are trying to fight off inundation with a huge estuary and harbor-closing gate that cost them billions to build. That’s being suggested for New York Harbor, and it’s going to be billions to recreate that here.

Does that buy you time? Yes. Will it solve a 20-foot sea-level rise crisis? No, it can’t possibly.

So we’re talking human life versus geologic time, and the two are not necessarily compatible. Yes, humans will be here after that much time goes by, but they’ll be in a different place.

Q: What is the biggest issue with tidal wetland areas?

A: Tidal flooding. You have two choices: endure the flooding over and over again, or jack up the house and live at a higher elevation, because the lot will still be there, but water will be coming more and more frequently. We’re talking about a foot-plus per century. In a lifetime? Big deal. But in four lifetimes? There you go.

I know (flooding) happens today in spring tides in Ventnor, Margate, the back bays of Long Beach Island and Ocean City. You get a 6.2-, 6.3-foot tide, and suddenly you’ve got four inches of water in the street. And that could happen every high tide if the sea level keeps rising.

Q: You mentioned the future loss due to climate change. What do you think can be done at this point to mitigate that? Can anything still be done, or have we gone beyond the point of no return?

A: Climate change is an inertia. It got started in the 1850s with the Industrial Revolution. Yes, we’re still burning coal like crazy, we’re still using lots of fuel of all sorts and types, and we have more cows on the planet than we have people, and they essentially burn a lot of methane, and emit it — as do we.

So the long-story-short is, the greenhouse gases are increasing, and unless we can sequester or remove them at way faster rates than we are now, there’s going to be more rise before it peaks, levels off or begins declining.

Unless something happens in terms of the solar radiation constant, which has changed in geologic time, we are in trouble. Six hundred million years ago, the earth was entirely covered in snow, and it damn near extinguished life on the planet. And then things warmed up again. That was the big freeze, that basically only geologists are even cognizant of, let alone politicians. They don’t know anything about the snowball days.

Q: What do you think about the fact that so many people simply do not believe in climate change, don’t think it exists and don’t worry about it?

A: Well, they clearly haven’t spent much time with the history of the planet. And that’s easily understood that that doesn’t happen. I mean, there are people that don’t believe man went to the moon. They think it was a Hollywood skit that was put on for government conspiracy purposes. So climate change is real. Climate change is happening, and in the last 200 years, it’s accelerated. Make of it what you will, and worry about it if you care to, but it is going to change where we get our food, how we live our lives along the shore, and ultimately our great-great-great-grandchildren are going to have made some accommodations for it.

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