I have to thank all of you still here for indulging my extended absence. In today’s non-stop, ’round-the-clock media onslaught, ten days is a long vacation for a blogger. But all that fun in the sun served a purpose. My two young boys had a chance to get reacquainted with their grandparents after a nineteen month hiatus, otherwise known as the final leg of my parents’ circumnavigation. And I got to watch sea level rise in action.
Okay, not literally. What I was really watching was the rise and fall of the tides – in essence, a foot of sea level rise happening twice each day – and its impact on a child’s beach constructions.
Each day, my four-year-old (usually with the help of my forty-year-old) would spend hours crafting islands, forts, canals, and harbors along the ocean’s edge. As the tide would rise, they’d furiously add sand and rocks before eventually retreating up the shore to start anew. And each morning, my son would anxiously rush down to the beach to see whether their latest and greatest schemes had lasted the night. The answer was always the same: no.
After a few days (I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes), the parallels to the conundrum we face with coastal development and sea level rise became obvious. As I’ve said before, we basically have three options for coping with rising sea levels, and none of them is perfect:
- Armor the coast: Sea walls can protect homes and roads behind them, but they take a heavy toll on neighboring beaches and marshes by stopping the natural flow of sand along the coast. They’re also expensive to build, maintain, and upgrade to keep pace with rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather.
- Nourish beaches: Adding sand, planting dune grasses, even reinforcing dunes with degradable skeletons, are all ways to help maintain beaches and dunes that naturally protect what’s behind them. But again, it’s a temporary and expensive solution.
- Retreat: Abandoning or moving coastal development eliminates the conflict and allows coastlines to move naturally, but is economically and emotionally fraught.
The daily struggles of my four-year-old highlighted the pitfalls of all three strategies. Within the space of a day, sandcastles piled high with sand and painstakingly reinforced with rocks were reduced to nothing more than piles of rubble. At the end of a week, what was left resembled a sunken island chain.
The week also provided a glimpse into the human psyche. At first, each loss was met with disappointment, dismay, and desperation. But by week’s end, my son glibly accepted the fate of his creations and greeted the daily challenge of rebuilding with a degree of gusto.
Did the solution to all our problems reveal itself during my idyllic week on the beach? Of course not. After all, sandcastles are a far cry from cherished family homes and critical infrastructure. And experts have told me that there is no silver bullet; that adapting to rising sea levels will require a host of strategies, and likely some major attitude adjustments. But, as is often the case, watching my son come to grips with the realities of his world gave me hope and a renewed confidence in human resilience and creativity.