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Coastal resiliency at stake as storms intensify

September 28, 2017

Jim Kinter

George Mason University’s Jim Kinter said that it’s not the number of future storms that pose the greatest danger to coastal resiliency as much as their growing ferocity.

The issue has become increasingly relevant in the wake of the recent devastation by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

“The real story is intensity,” said Kinter, the director of Mason’s Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies and a professor of climate dynamics. “We have observed an increase in the intensity of tropical storms over the past half-decade, and climate projections indicate that trend will continue. The storms that do make landfall or pass near the coastlines will cause much greater damage.”

Both Miami and Fort Lauderdale saw significant amounts of sand removed by Hurricane Irma, meaning both locales will have to import more sand to restore the beaches and protective dunes. Texas suffered a similar fate along its eastern shorelines after being ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. Hurricane Maria, even without making landfall, wreaked havoc on the dunes of Cape Hatteras.

New Jersey endured likewise with Superstorm Sandy in 2012, forcing the state to rebuild numerous boardwalks with much stronger, reinforced foundations and replace damaged buildings with elevated structures that will allow storm surge water to pass underneath.

Nature may eventually restore the ravaged coastlines in places where there are barrier islands or protective sand dunes, but all the nearby development remains at risk.

That could prove especially problematic in Virginia, especially in the low-lying Tidewater area that houses a massive U.S. Navy presence in Norfolk, a sizable commercial port and associated shipping and dry dock facilities and a diverse and largely low-income population, Kinter said.

The state has already begun reinforcing seawalls and elevating structures to make the Tidewater area more resilient, but Kinter said the efforts can only go so far.

“The cost is very high and, to date, only a small portion of the vulnerable areas have gotten attention, using both state and federal funds,” Kinter said.

Jim Kinter can be reached at ikinter@gmu.edu or 703-993-5700.

For more information, contact John Hollis at 703-993-8781 or jhollis2@gmu.edu.

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 35,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.