Shoreline Erosion

Eroding sand dunes

What You Need to Know

Beachcombers appreciate a healthy shoreline as it allows us to enjoy a good stretch of beach or coastline on which to hunt. The shoreline also provides a perfect place to picnic, or fish, or boat. We may not give much thought to the shoreline itself other than to make note of the conditions of the space—good gravel for sifting through, or rocky areas where glass may try to hide, or (sigh) neither of these and thus little chance of a good glassing day.

But the natural shoreline has value unrelated to sea and beach glass. It affords a rich, active habitat for fish and wildlife, and cleanses storm water runoff before it enters a body of water. The shoreline also provides physical integrity to the water’s edge, shielding it from erosion; some of the taller plants like bulrush and cattail take on and reduce the impact of the waves, basically acting as a buffer zone.

Shoreline erosion, however, is a natural process. It can occur on lakes, streams, rivers and along the oceans’ coast. The Department of Environmental Conservation in NY in their Shoreline Stabilization Techniques, defines shoreline erosion as “the gradual, although sometimes rapid, removal of sediments from the shoreline. It is caused by a number of factors including storms, wave action, rain, ice, winds, runoff, and loss of trees and other vegetation. Although erosion is not intrinsically harmful, when it is augmented to the point where it affects natural resources, water quality, ecosystems, and property loss, it is generally undesirable.”

Unfortunately, some of the practices to stabilize erosion can actually cause more harm than good. And sadly, many modifications made to the shorelines are merely for aesthetic purposes, certainly in residential areas. Shoreline stabilization methods that include sea walls and rip rap (loose stone or rocks used to form a foundation as a breakwater) and bulkheads—all referred to as “hard” structural methods have been known to increase erosion and destroy native habitat.

Lake Erie rip rap

New York’s DEC and so many other states’ environmental agencies have for years encouraged ‘soft’ or ‘natural’ protection methods. New York advises it’s best to imitate nature, and employ a ‘soft armoring’, which is explained as using “live plants, logs, root wads, vegetative mats, and other methods that eliminate or reduce the need for ‘hard armoring’, such as rock rip-rap, stone blocks, sheet-pile or other hard materials. Soft armor is alive and so can adapt to changes in its environment as well as reproduce and multiply.”

shoreline habitat restoration project

Similarly, Florida and the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), among others, endorse the “living shorelines” as environment-friendly techniques to resolve shoreline erosion problems. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection explains, “Living shorelines use natural shoreline features such as salt marshes, mangroves, seagrasses, other native plants and oyster reefs to preserve and build coastal habitats.”

More relative to the beachcombers and the glass collectors, the practice of grooming the beaches—that tidy beach-raking that removes all the trash and wrack and debris from both public and private beaches not only decreases the chances of finding beach glass within the rubbish and detritus, it can also pose problems for the local flora and fauna and even the sand itself (it loosens it up, allowing it to dry easily and become more likely to blow away) thus encouraging erosion. Several communities have ceased the tractor beach grooming for this reason, but too many continue the potentially destructive procedure.
In general, as with so many areas of our lives when considering our impact on nature, the best practice is to "leave it as you found it" (#2minutebeachclean excluded).

You can help!

  • Take your trash with you when you leave. Sounds like a no-brainer, but 40% of trash found at beaches still comes directly from the public.
  • Use safer personal care products. Your refreshing dip into the water may be detrimental to the beach environment, depending on what you’ve rubbed or sprayed on yourself. Commercial sunscreens contain phosphates which can negatively affect the ecosystem and are known to promote the growth of algae.
  • Don’t drive on the beach. The compacting of the sand can destroy the natural habitat of marine animals. Driving on the beach can damage nests and eggs, or wildlife can be run over.
  • Stay off the sand dunes. They are the beaches’ natural protection against erosion, shielding the area against heavy rains or strong waves.

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine November 2017 issue

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