Orrin H. Pilkey, shoreline expert, answers questions
What work do you do?
I am a retired professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke and am still actively engaged in research and writing. The North Carolina Coastal Federation is the only environmental organization I belong to because I want to make sure my views bear the stamp of science; I don’t want to be written off as an environmentalist.
What are you working on at the moment?
Trying to preserve our ocean beaches for future generations of people as well as for the flora and fauna that depend on them. We must devise ways to stop development along our ocean beaches.
A few years ago, I co-authored A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands with artist Mary Edna Fraser, who used beautiful batik images to show barrier islands as seen from the air — a unique combination of science and art. We are currently working on a similar book about river deltas.
What long and winding road led you to this point in your career?
I was once a deep-sea sedimentologist, spending at least a month per year at sea on research vessels, specializing in the study of abyssal plains on open-ocean floors. In 1969, I went to Waveland, Miss., to help my parents clean out their house after Hurricane Camille and was astounded and fascinated at the power of the sea. I then wrote a rather elementary book about coastal hazards (with my father, an engineer) called How to Live With an Island, which sold for $1.50 and was three-eighths of an inch thick. It was a huge hit. All kinds of people asked permission to quote it. The public never once asked me a single question about abyssal plains. I had found a niche, and I was hooked on the coast. I’ve subsequently authored numerous books on the coast and edited a series called Living With the Shore.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Manhattan and grew up in Washington state, where my father was an engineer on the Hanford Nuclear Project. I now live in Hillsborough, N.C.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Twenty-five years ago, when I began speaking and writing about seawalls and how they destroy beaches, I was shocked at the tenor of the response to this idea both from professional engineers and from developers and politicians. The attacks on me were often quite personal, and letters damning me were written to my university president and to the papers. As a scientist, I was unaccustomed to such personal attacks.
Now, I consider such reactions to be a badge of honor and a measure of effectiveness, but it took some time to get to this point. When the Folly Beach, S.C., town board drafted a proclamation pronouncing me a “persona non grata” in their town, I proudly displayed it on my wall.
What’s been the best?
I spent two decades fighting the Army Corps of Engineers over their proposed installation of jetties at Oregon Inlet, N.C., a gigantic project that would result in significant down-shore erosion if allowed to be built. At one point, it looked as if they were on the verge of winning based on a very favorable prediction of fish catch. I was really down for a while, until we discovered, in the fine print, that they had figured that fish would be brought from as far as New England all the way to Oregon Inlet! I went from a depression to being overjoyed. The Corps is rarely defeated in the long run, but this made them (once again) go back to the drawing board.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I am most infuriated by the destruction of New Orleans at the hands of the ever-dishonest and ever-incompetent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We as a society have focused on the problems of inept recovery, but we should also focus on the root cause of the flooding: our greatest engineering disaster ever. The Corps, which runs rampant over the environment in so many ways, has finally fouled up in a huge and very visible way. They caused the flooding through a century and a half of orchestrating environmentally destructive policies on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, leading to marsh loss on the Mississippi Delta, and then compounded the problem by building inadequate levees.
Who is your environmental hero?
What’s your environmental vice?
Using too much gasoline.
How do you spend your free time?
I spend a great deal of time cutting up the many trees on my property that were brought down during Hurricane Fran in 1996 or were weakened by Fran and came down in the ensuing years. I’m also building a curving stone wall with rocks gathered from my land.
Read any good books lately?
I just read Woody, Cisco, and Me by Jim Longhi, a memoir of life in the Merchant Marines during World War II written by a colleague of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a memoir of an African childhood by Alexandra Fuller.
What’s your favorite meal?
Fresh Alaska salmon.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Shackleford Banks in the Cape Lookout National Seashore, N.C. It is uninhabited by humans. Accessible only by boat, Shackleford Banks boasts beautiful dunes, pristine beaches, and ancient maritime forests — but no roads or buildings.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would get the Army Corps of Engineers under control. This means I would get them out of the army, out of politics, out from under Congress, and keep them honest through strong oversight.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite movie?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
Though taller by a head, admittedly slimmer, and arguably more handsome, Harrison Ford.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Think of ocean beaches as being sacred, and do everything in your power to preserve them.
You stated that you did not want to be “written off as an environmentalist.” Is that such a bad thing? — Charles Cope, Arlington, Va.
In some conservative circles, environmentalism is a dirty word and an opinion can be dismissed by simply claiming it comes from “radical environmentalists.” I found myself so labeled by the media. When I took care to point out that my statements were based on my knowledge as a scientist, I was then asked why I belong to environmental organizations. I reluctantly resigned from most of my memberships with the hope that I could be a more effective advocate for progressive change if I were viewed solely as a scientist. In other words, my foes attempted to taint me as a tree-hugging environmentalist, when in fact I was a tree-hugging scientist.
What factors have contributed most to the degradation of the esteem of science in the public eye during the course of your career? What actions can young scientists take to ensure that their voices are heard clearly so that more public policy can be decided by and based on rational scientific discourse? — Scott Koranda, Wauwatosa, Wis.
Environmental science takes some hard licks, especially in the debate about climate change and sea-level rise. A whole cottage industry funded by Big Coal and Big Oil and encouraged by the present administration lies in wait for any and all new pronouncements by climate-change scientists. It is a form of client science, where the truth is found according to the clients’ needs. Client science has the appearance of sophistication, since it is usually based on some kernel of truth.
I am pleased to note that academia has become less stuffy in the last decade, and young scientists who choose to speak out on controversial issues such as climate change and the Army Corps of Engineers are less endangered than they once were. Some problems of censorship (before tenure) still exist, though. In an administration like the current one, the voice of academia is of critical importance.
I’m wondering if you would comment specifically on erosion control and beach nourishment projects. Do you sense any evolution in public thinking about “real estate” on barrier islands and beaches, or are we always in danger of shortsighted technological “solutions”? — Joseph Clark, Tallahassee, Fla.
We are always in danger of shortsighted technological solutions. I have observed that each state, and even each community, seems to have to learn for itself the lessons that are already well understood elsewhere. It is an undeniable fact that seawalls destroy beaches, but Florida more than any other state refuses to learn (or to accept) that fact. Hundreds of seawall permits, mostly at the county level, were granted after Hurricane Ivan passed by the panhandle. One can even build a seawall without a permit, if it is an emergency, and of course, every seawall is built in an emergency.
Nourishment (the pumping of sand to a beach) is a better solution, but it is costly, must be repeated every few years, is environmentally damaging, leads to intensified development, and in the long scheme of things, is really only a Band-Aid solution. It’s better to move structures back or demolish threatened buildings. Before the post-World War II economic boom, many beach houses were built on long lots that allowed the houses to be moved back as the shoreline eroded.
Who should pay for beach nourishment? — Donny Barber, Bryn Mawr, Pa.
Despite protestations to the contrary, most of the political pressure to pump sand on a beach comes from beachfront property owners. They were the ones who were dumb enough to build a house right next to an eroding beach. No reason why the rest of us more prudent souls should pay for the new beach.
Do you know of any temporary coastal erosion structures (that work) that can be put in place prior to storms and removed after? — Joel Halsey, East Hampton, N.Y.
Many of the devices on the market today might be called snake-oil devices. They have fancy names (wave buster, sta-beach, surf breaker), but they rarely work as claimed. Virginia Beach used to send bulldozers out to their beach just before a storm, to pile up sand in front of critical areas, and after the storm, if the sand was still there, they would put it back in place. Not good for beach fauna, but it was one way to protect buildings that were too close to the beach. Other than that approach, I am not aware of a successful temporary structure. The problem is that a single storm can move huge amounts of sand, and interfering with this sand transport could damage adjacent beaches.
Do you think artificial surfing reefs can help slow down erosion? — Chad Nelsen, San Clemente, Calif.
Whether artificial surfing reefs slow down erosion or not depends on the local situation. The problem is that such reefs may reduce the wave input to a beach and cause sand to be deposited. That may sound good, but trapping of sand is usually stealing of sand from some other beach. However, under just the right and, I think, unusual circumstances, such artificial reefs can be beneficial to local beaches. The proposed site needs to be studied carefully, and if possible, the reefs should be made adjustable or removable in case they cause erosion.
The coastal cities near where I live seem hell-bent on development. How do we make them listen? — Erica Smith, Norfolk, Va.
How do we make them listen? What an important question. I used to think that all we would need for society to wake up was one powerful hurricane. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo roared ashore, causing massive damage in South Carolina. I thought surely this would bring people to their senses. But Hurricane Hugo turned out to be an urban renewal project. Small cottages that were destroyed in the storm were rebuilt as grand cottages. Multifamily buildings became high-rises. Every hurricane since has resulted in urban renewal projects.
Perhaps a glimmer of hope can be seen in the withdrawal of some insurance companies from the coast of Florida. But I suspect we will continue to see large buildings in costly developments. Prohibiting seawalls — like North Carolina, South Carolina, and Maine have done — helps. In the long run, prohibiting reconstruction of storm-destroyed buildings is an essential step, but this wouldn’t address the high-rise problem. High-rises essentially take away any flexibility for future response to sea-level rise. Once a high-rise is constructed, the pressure is great to preserve the valuable property, often at the expense of losing the beach.
One approach no one has tried is to allow no increase in the density of buildings in communities that accept federal or state tax money for beach nourishment. But how to make them listen remains a deepening mystery to me!
Do you have any suggestions for moving away from building on beaches, cliffs, flood plains, steep slopes, or fire-prone canyons? — Ginger Wireman, Richland, Wash.
Ultimately, the solution is a political one that will require that rare combination of vision and courage in politicians. There is little chance that New Orleans will not rebuild in its entirety because this administration, wounded by its failures, is hardly likely to take the drastic steps needed to prevent future disasters. The current course of action is certain to set up a future disaster in the next big storm. As certain as the rising sun and the falling tide!
For beachfront property owners along eroding shorelines, one can guess within a few years when the building will fall in (unless costly beach-damaging action is taken). But the coastal development juggernaut seems unstoppable, even by hurricanes like Katrina. President Bush himself, on his first post-Katrina visit to the Gulf Coast and seeking to console Senator Trent Lott, stated, “Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house.” This myopic view that the near-total destruction of seaside villages merely provides the opportunity to build bigger and better is a form of societal madness.
Would you please explain what the problem is with seawalls? And what exactly are abyssal plains? — Hanna D., Troy, Mich.
When you build something stationary, like a seawall, next to the beach, you have stopped the retreat of the shoreline, but you have not addressed the underlying cause of erosion. Thus the beach continues to lose sand, growing narrower until it disappears. The process usually takes one to three decades.
Abyssal plains are the flattest surfaces on earth. They form as massive fluid sediment flows arrive from the continents and spread out when they hit the flat ocean floor, forming sediment “lakes.” Most of these plains, which can be thousands of square miles in area, are found at water depths between 16,000 and 19,000 feet. The Hatteras Abyssal Plain is 20 to 50 miles wide and extends from off North Carolina to well beyond the southern tip of Florida, and over all that distance, the change in depth of the plain surface is less than 300 feet. Using a remote camera on that plain, I once photographed a soda bottle at a depth of 16,600 feet!
I’m curious about your Folly Beach experience. How long ago was that, and why did they consider you “persona non grata”? — Jeanne Miller, Folly Beach, S.C.
About a dozen years ago, I vehemently objected to seawall construction on Folly and to the Corp’s outlandish claims about the probable lifespan of the proposed nourished beach. The town council didn’t take kindly to my troublemaking, but I’m happy to say the pendulum has swung a bit, and the local government is now more environmentally sensitive (though too late to prevent construction of new high-rises). Local citizens should be alert to the possibility that it will swing back. According to the local paper, most of a new nourished beach disappeared overnight in a small storm a few weeks ago.
Why should a Midwesterner who may never see the ocean or the beach care about the health of our coastline? — Fred Dodson, Charlotte, N.C.
The reason that the quality of the development on the beach environment on, say, Folly Beach, S.C., is important to someone in Omaha, Neb., is that her federal taxes will pay for all kinds of things for the beachfront buildings including beach nourishment, flood insurance, and storm-damage recovery. On a more idealistic plane, preservation of this very limited, narrow, ephemeral, and very threatened ecosystem should be important for the same reason that preservation of Yellowstone, Glacier, and Olympic national parks is important. And besides, people from Omaha sometimes come to Folly Beach for vacation.
It’s been proposed that we build barrier islands in the Mississippi Delta to protect and buffer New Orleans against future hurricanes. What are your thoughts? — Rob Carscadden, Kents Store, Va.
We are kidding ourselves if we think we can rebuild the Mississippi Delta with its fringing barrier islands just as they used to be. That’s one of the Corps proposals, but I strongly suspect that if they do the job, it will involve a lot of concrete rather than sand. We’ve got to get out from under the Corps’ defense of the status quo, because it will be very costly, and these costs can only accelerate in the future. Some delta towns will have to be lost. In all of this, we must recognize that sea level is rising faster in the Mississippi Delta than almost anywhere in North America. We need flexible and dynamic solutions much like nature’s own. Coastal scientists have proposed diverting the river mouth to a new location to provide new sediment to starved marshes. This is a great idea — one that attempts to do what the river would do naturally.
Louisiana barrier islands are valuable ecosystems and highly endangered. Do you think they can and should be saved and restored to provide habitat for birds and fishes? — Ann Burruss, Lafayette, La.
The Louisiana barrier islands took a big hit in Katrina, but that’s the way the delta evolves. Barrier islands form here and disappear there, and have been doing so for thousands of years. I don’t think any islands should be saved or restored by artificial means. Engineering the delta is a bottomless pit. To the greatest extent possible, let nature take its course on the outermost delta, and there will always be habitats for birds and fish.
Should people be allowed to move back into New Orleans’ flooded areas? — Clayton Ancona, Fort Collins, Colo.
If I was king of New Orleans, I would not allow the most heavily damaged areas to be reinhabited. I would shrink the city. I would select certain areas and raise their elevation with fill material and require all buildings to be on stilts. As it is now, nothing has really changed, and the city is very vulnerable to the next big one. We can’t compare the situation with Holland, where the whole country is built on a delta. We have lots of vacant high ground on the margins of the Mississippi Delta that can be developed. Think new city. For those who remain in the city, recognize that you will someday be flooded again, and be prepared.
I am about to graduate with a degree in environmental studies, and I want to spend my time working for conservation of beaches and oceans. Should I get a master’s degree, or start taking action now? — Sierra Schneider-Williams, Knoxville, Tenn.
Other things being equal, it is always better to get that master’s degree. You will be more employable and more “believable” in the societal debates that swirl around coastal issues. The degree could be in environmental or policy science, or in physical oceanography, geology, biology, or chemistry. Combining policy and science can be a good approach. Who do you know that’s doing just what you want to do and what is her education?