Sea Level Rise Threatens Survival of Barrier Islands

One expert believes New Jersey's barrier islands will no longer be inhabitable in 50 years.

By Brenda Flanagan

“Everybody wants to live here, I think, most of the time,” said Linda Higgins.

We found Higgins pulling the Christmas lights off trees in her mom’s front yard in Ocean Beach. The cottage sits on a thin strip of barrier island — just over a quarter-mile wide, bay to ocean. But Superstorm Sandy sent three feet of surf surging through the living room here, and tides in the back bay keep rising.

When asked if she ever expected the ocean levels would rise like this, Elsbeth Rapolla said, “No, I didn’t. I really didn’t. I came down here because I wanted all my grandchildren to enjoy the ocean. And they really have.”

“I’m sure it is probably inevitable. The water levels are rising everywhere,” said Karen Pitzner.

“The future for living here, I don’t think, is, it’s not going to be, some day. The water level’s going to come up and that’s going to be the end of the barrier island, you know. I can see somewhere, but it won’t be in my lifetime,” Higgins said.

Actually, it might. Interactive risk zone maps show a four-foot rise in ocean levels would overrun much of Ocean Beach. It’s not a matter of if, but when, says University of Miami Professor Hal Wanless.

“Sea level will be rising at a foot per decade — and that’s unbelievable, when you think about it,” he said.

Critics call Wanless “Dr. Doom” because his climate change projections push the high end of the scientific scale: two feet by 2048, three feet by 2065 — 6.6 feet by the end of the century. New Jersey barrier islands would be under water.

“It would inundate it. It’ll simply inundate it. By the time we’re at three, four, five feet we’re not going to be able to maintain beaches.  And that’s going to be within 50 years,” Wanless said.

State Climatologist David Robinson more conservatively projects a three-foot rise by the end of the century. Even so, he said, “With the addition of storms on top of that, we’ve got big problems. Because a three-foot rise in sea level is akin to a storm surge in a minor to moderate coastal storm — not a Sandy, but many of the storms we’ve seen have done considerable damage along the coast.”

After Sandy, New Jersey rushed to rebuild. The storm punched a hole through Mantoloking — washed an entire house into the bay. Now the road’s repaired and the scar is a wide dune that defiantly confronts the ocean. Meanwhile, shore homeowners raised houses 10 feet and more above flood levels.

Nervous towns like Toms River bulldozed mounds of sand along the beach this winter, afraid Hurricane Joaquin would damage their costly renovations. Between state and federal grants and loans, New Jersey was allocated more than $13 billion after Sandy to repair homes, businesses and infrastructure.

“Once communities look at maintaining the infrastructure with each step of sea level rise, then you will start to look at the economics of doing that and it’ll start to become clear when it’s no longer economically feasible,” Wanless said.

Wanless says living on these islands will become untenable long before they’re under water. Even the Army Corps of Engineers’ dune wall won’t stop the inevitable, when storms turn increasingly violent, routinely damaging roads, bridges, sewage systems and power grids.  Who will buy a home with a 30-year mortgage?

“It’s a tough decision to say, no you’re wasting your money. But when you think about it, and people, the hair goes up on the back of their necks when you say maybe we should be using part of the money to help people relocate. Well, yeah, maybe we should,” Wanless said.

Cathy Bogdon just built a brand new, elevated house on a lagoon in Breezy Point.

“We should be fine. We’re not worried. Not worried at all,” she said.  “Not concerned, love it down here.”

“If I go over to the beach now and say, ‘You can’t have your house here, because 50 years from now it’s going to be under water,’ they’d stick me in the waves out in the ocean. It’s difficult to get people excited about it,” said Toms River Mayor Tom Kelaher.

Kelaher readily admits rising ocean levels will eventually swamp much of the town’s real estate — and the Jersey Shore.

“Tourism is one of our biggest economic engines in New Jersey. People depend on the beaches, people’s homes are over there, their savings are in these beach area places. To say you can’t be there anymore would be absolutely devastating. So you’re going to have to do that incrementally. I don’t really have all the answers,” he said.

“I just hope that the beach is here for a long time. I would hate to see it go. I’m getting emotional,” Pitzner said. There’s a lot of good memories. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. And for my kids and my grandkids.”

This spring, Toms River will host several climate change experts to discuss steps they can take to deal with the impact of rising ocean levels. Imagine another six feet of ocean here. They say it is inevitable.