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Countries Are Preparing for Rising Seas But the U.S. Is Far Behind

By 2100, a projected sea level rise of up to seven feet will have tremendous impact around the world.

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Lighthouses, the sentinels of the sea, have a long history of falling into the ocean due to shoreline retreat. Located, as they are, as close to the sea as possible, they are global symbols of the destruction ahead for our society as we face a future of rising seas.

The Eddystone light in Plymouth, United Kingdom, famous in song and legend, went through five iterations between 1696 and 1882 when the current version was built. Each successive lighthouse was destroyed by storm or fire. When the Great Storm of 1703 took out the first lighthouse, its overconfident designer, Henry Winstanley, a famous architect of the time, was inside making repairs. He was never seen again.

Among the U.S. victims of the sea and shoreline retreat are Ponce de Leon Lighthouse, Florida, lost in 1835; successive lighthouses on Sandy Point, Block Island, Rhode Island, in the 1830s and 1840s; Chatham, Massachusetts, twin towers, 1879 and 1888; Cape Henlopen Light in Delaware in 1926; and Tucker Beach Lighthouse, Long Beach Island, New Jersey, 1927. Cape May, New Jersey, is now on lighthouse number three, and perhaps most startling of all is the Morris Island, South Carolina, lighthouse, still standing tall and surrounded by the ocean, 1,600 feet ( 500 m) offshore.

The Morris Island light replaced the original lighthouse that was pulverized by Yankee cannon fire during the 1863 attack on Ft. Wagner in the Civil War (reenacted in the final scenes of the movie Glory). Built in 1876 about 1,600 feet (500 m)behind the beach, it now stands well offshore, leaning at an angle of 2 or 3 degrees. Its foundation is believed to be at least 35 feet (11 m) deep, which may be why it has been able to survive in shallow water in the open ocean.

The saga of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has all the elements that will face society as a whole in a time of sea level rise. This lighthouse was also built 1,600 feet (500 m) back from the shoreline but the base of its foundation was only 6 feet (2 m) deep, well above sea level. This meant that had the shoreline moved past the lighthouse, the structure would have toppled over. First lit in 1880, this black-and-white spiral-striped lighthouse, the second on the site, had become virtually the symbol of the state of North Carolina by the mid-twentieth century. In a 1980 storm, waves swirled around the base of the structure, and it appeared to be on its way to join the list of felled lighthouses. It was saved by a quick-thinking National Park Service that tore up a nearby parking lot and threw it into the roiling surf while the storm still raged. The erosion-threatened structure was finally moved 2,000 feet (600 m) back from the eroding shoreline in the summer of 1999.

The move came after an onerous two-decades-long societal debate that holds lessons for erosion-threatened communities everywhere. Even though the structure was “protected” by a steel groin and a large sandbag seawall, it was clearly in danger of falling into the sea in a big storm. It was also clear that sea level rise was a factor in the shoreline retreat. The Outer Banks of North Carolina are currently thinning at a rapid rate (several feet per year), as are most of the world’s coastal plain barrier islands, by erosion on both sides, a sure sign of an expanding ocean. Beach nourishment at Cape Hatteras had been tried but it didn’t take, and the large seawall approach was rejected by the National Park Service, which had recently adopted a policy of letting nature roll on at the shoreline.

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