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The problem with beach nourishment

Beach nourishment is another chapter in the never-ending tale of erosion.

Carlos Waters / Vox

Lido Key Beach has seen better days.

In the spring of 2018, the city commission in Sarasota, Florida, declared a beach erosion emergency after repeated beatings from Hurricane Irma and Subtropical Storm Alberto reduced the wide, sandy beach to a narrow strip. The damage to the beach was an “immediate and ongoing threat” to property and infrastructure near the shore.

Aerial photographs show the change on Lido Beach’s coastline from 2004 to 2018. Credit: Google Earth
Google Earth and Google Earth

The emergency plan requested state and federal funds to help rebuild the beach with approximately 150,000 to 200,000 cubic yards of sand.

Lido Key is your classic coastal resort city, filled with high-rise condos and nightlife. Like many coastal communities, its residents and business owners depend on the beach economy.

Which is why they are taking action to defend their beach from the effects of critical erosion. And they are doing it with one of the most popular strategies for coastal defense: beach nourishment.

During a beach nourishment, engineers will add new sand to an eroding beach in order to rebuild or expand the shoreline. The wider beach can then help buffer high tides and violent storms from damaging or destroying nearby property and infrastructure.

An illustrated cross-section shows where fill sand is placed during a beach nourishment. A dune tops a natural berm, which slopes downward to make the sea floor. Newer, beach fill sand is placed on the sea floor to extend the natural berm further seaward,
A diagram of two kinds of beach nourishment designs.
American Shore & Beach Preservation Association

But researchers discovered that coastal defense schemes like beach nourishment may ultimately do more harm than good by providing a false sense of security in critically eroding areas. There is evidence that beach nourishment can “mask or reduce the apparent impact of coastal hazards without changing the natural processes driving them.”

Watch the video above to learn more about beach nourishment, their effectiveness in the short run, and their long-term problems in an era of climate change and sea level rise.

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