Running out of Beaches: sand miners and builders

For a place that depends on sun-and-sand-seeking tourists, Fort Lauderdale, Florida has a big problem: Its beaches are disappearing.  The Florida city has been fighting a defensive battle against nature for decades. The sand that lines its shores is constantly being swept out to sea by wind, waves and tides. In the natural course of things, that sand would be replenished by grains carried by the Atlantic’s southward-moving currents. That’s what used to happen. Today, however, so many marinas, jetties and breakwaters have been built along the Atlantic coast that the flow of incoming sand has been blocked. The natural erosion continues, but the natural replenishment does not.

For many years, Broward County, in which Fort Lauderdale sits, solved its vanishing-beach problem by replacing the sand with grains dredged up from the nearby ocean floor. Nearly 12 million cubic yards of underwater grains have been stripped off the sea bottom and thrown onto the county’s shores. But by now, virtually all of the accessible undersea sand has been used up.  The same goes for Miami Beach, Palm Beach and many other beach-dependent Florida towns. In fact, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, nearly half of the state’s beaches have suffered “critical erosion.” Florida isn’t an anomaly. Beaches are disappearing all across America and around the world, from South Africa to Japan to Western Europe. A 2017 study by the U.S. Geological Survey warned that unless something is done, as much as two-thirds of Southern California’s beaches may be completely eroded by 2100…

Massive coastal development blocks the flow of ocean-borne sand. In many countries, including the U.S., river dams also cut off sand that used to feed beaches. The widespread practice of dredging up river sand to use for making concrete makes the problem worse. Researchers at the South African Institute of International Affairs believe that sand mining has slashed by one-third the flow of river sand that feeds the beaches of Durban, South Africa; and in the San Francisco Bay, environmentalists warn that massive sand dredging may be starving nearby beaches.

In some places, outlaw sand miners are hauling away the beach itself. In Morocco, Algeria, Russian-occupied Crimea and elsewhere, illegal miners have stripped entire beaches for construction sand, leaving behind rocky moonscapes. Smugglers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia load beach sand onto small barges in the night to sell in Singapore.

Having thwarted the natural processes that used to feed beaches, people are now replacing them with artificial ones. The easiest and cheapest method is to suck up grains from offshore and blast them onto the beach through massive pipes. But having run out of offshore sand, many towns in southern Florida are left with no choice but to dig their sand from inland quarries and haul it to the coast one roaring, diesel-spewing truck at a time. Tourists and locals hate the noise and traffic, and county officials hate the extra cost, which can be easily double that of dredged sand. Desperate officials are even talking about importing sand from the Bahamas.

The costs add up fast. The price of renourishing a beach can reach $10 million per mile. Broward County alone has spent more than $100 million replenishing its beaches in a multiyear project launched in 2015. More than a few places, such as Atlantic City, have already racked up tabs of well over $100 million by themselves. All told, nearly $9 billion has been spent in the U.S. in recent decades on artificially rebuilding hundreds of miles of beach, according to researchers at Western Carolina University. Florida accounted for about a quarter of the total. Almost all of the costs are covered by taxpayers.

Dredging up ocean sand clouds the water with stirred-up grains and muck. Suspended in the water, those particles can block life-giving sunlight from reaching coral reefs. And when the grains settle, they can suffocate the reefs and whatever creatures are living on them.  Moreover, beach sands are themselves home to a multitude of creatures. Besides the obvious ones—clams, crabs, birds, plants—they shelter all kinds of nematodes, flatworms, bacteria and other organisms so small that they live on the surface of individual sand grains. Despite their tiny size, these creatures play an important role in the ecosystem, breaking down organic matter and providing food for other creatures. Dumping thousands of tons of imported sand on top of these organisms can obliterate whole colonies of them.

Beaches are bulwarks that can protect lives and property from storms and rising seas in our climatically imperiled world….The U.S.’s densely populated eastern seaboard is already getting a taste of what that means. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, it killed 159 people and damaged or destroyed at least 650,000 homes. The storm struckhardest in areas where beaches had eroded, leaving little or no buffer between cities and the raging wind and waves. On the other hand, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, renourished beaches in New York and New Jersey prevented an estimated $1.3 billion in damages that Sandy otherwise would have inflicted.

Excerpts from Vince Beiser, The Battle for our Beaches, Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2018

See also The World in a Grain

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