NewsOceans and Climate

Breaking the waves

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Science  13 Nov 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6262, pp. 756-759
DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6262.756

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Summary

When Hurricane Irene hit North Carolina's coast in 2011, waves 2 meters high began pounding the shore. Two properties on Pine Knoll Shores, a community on one of the state's many barrier islands, provided a study in contrasts. One homeowner had installed a concrete bulkhead to protect his yard from the sea. But the churning waves overtopped and ultimately toppled the wall, washing away tons of sediment and leaving a denuded mud flat. Less than 200 meters away, another owner had installed a "living shoreline"—a planted carpet of marsh grass that gently sloped into the water, held in place by a rock sill placed a few meters offshore. The onrushing water bent the marsh grasses almost flat, but their flexing stalks dampened the waves and their deep roots held the soil. After the hurricane passed, the grasses sprang back; the property weathered the storm largely intact. The contrast highlights how defenses inspired by nature, rather than concrete armor, can protect coastlines from battering storms.

  • * Gabriel Popkin is a freelance writer in Mount Rainier, Maryland. Reporting support provided by a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. Photography by Dylan Ray