Coastal Erosion After Hurricane Sandy: The Implications for Leatherbacks


Hurricane Sandy was one of the largest storms to hit the East Coast in decades. Much of the news surrounding this storm has focused on the economic and social fallout. Many people are now displaced, businesses are lost, and the clean-up for this highly populated region will be huge. As we move forward to address the clean-up and restoration efforts of this region, it is pertinent that we consider the environment. More specifically, we should consider coastal geomorphology, a key determinant in how well these coastal landscapes can handle storms. As we move forward, decisions we make in restoration and rebuilding will effect our resilience to future storms and coastal ecosystems’ resilience to future storms. As we increase coastal resilience, we get the added bonus of improving leatherback sea turtle nesting sites.

Beach dunes are the first line of defense against storms. When a storm does come, there is re-working of the beach dune system. In general, the sand is redistributed in ways that increase the land surface elevation, protecting those areas from future flooding and erosion. Development along beachfronts weakens the dune structure and tends to lower the land surface through subsidence (lowering of the land surface due to stress, in this case, by building weight) and manual removal of sediments to build things like roads. By developing these areas, we are making them less resilient. When this happens in areas where sea turtles nest, such as the southeast U.S., they lose nesting habitat.

Clearly, a movement to stop beachfront development would be extremely difficult at the very least. The current plan in the New Jersey/New York region is to bulldoze the coastal areas to remove the sand and rebuild roads and houses. This plan, goes back to the status quo – or as USGS puts it, the pre-Sandy geomorphology. However, we can use technological and engineering innovations to make our beachfronts more resilient to storm surges like Katrina, Ivan, and Sandy. If we use the restoration of areas hurt by Hurricane Sandy to spur this innovation, we can minimize future storm destruction of both beachfront communities and sea turtle nesting sites. This will be better economically, socially, and ecologically.

Easier said then done? Probably not. There are two easy options. First, move inland. Second, move up. Creating houses that can be relocated, as was done in the first half of the 20th century, would make moving inland much easier as the sea level rises and storms become more intense. As for the option of moving up: we know lowering our land surface makes us more susceptible to flooding and loss of life and property. Building techniques can be used that raise the land surface or keep it at the current elevation rather than lowering the land surface.

Now to tie this in to our leatherback sea turtle nesting project. Coastal erosion is a major threat to sea turtle nesting. With our field and remote sensing-based exploration, we collect data on coastal geomorphology and leatherback physiology. Then, we create our ecosystem-climate change model to predict the current and future state and distribution of leatherback nesting. When analyzing our model, we can include data on coastal erosion and flood risks for determining management areas for leatherback sea turtle nesting. If we learn ways to work with the coastal environment rather than against it, the future of the leatherback sea turtle will be a lot brighter.

To see more information on coastal geomorphology and Hurricane Sandy, go to this great article written by scientists at the USGS: Shifting Sands: Sandy’s Lessons in Coastal Geology