"Billions of dollars are wasted each year on coastal research, monitoring and remedial work", claims self-made marine conservationist Dr Floor Anthoni from Leigh, New Zealand. "Our beaches keep eroding, despite enormous amounts of money and effort wasted to counteract it. To make matters worse, many of our remedies, like planting dunes, only increase the problem. Scientists have collectively failed to understand how beaches repair themselves, and as a result, have left a wide gap in our knowledge where neither investigations nor measurements have been done. It is time for the public and administrators, to ask some awkward questions."
Dr Anthoni's privately funded research on beaches and dune systems in New Zealand, Australia and Europe, yielded a breakthrough when he likened beaches to living organisms. Like animals, who eat food and derive energy from burning it, beaches tap energy from waves and wind. It gives them uncannily lifelike behaviour, like being able to grow, to defend themselves, to have likes and dislikes, but above all, to be able to repair damage. But unlike living organisms, beaches cannot procreate. By looking at beaches this way, it is possible to assess their health in a single visit, rather than requiring decades of painstaking monitoring of sand profiles, which cannot ever yield a qualitative assessment.
The main mistake engineers and scientists make, is by thinking that the total amount of sand in the sea (wet sand) and on the beach and dunes (dry sand), is in any way relevant to the health of a beach. They think that the amount of sand is what protects human settlements. Their thinking is further muddled by accepting that beaches must erode because of gradually rising sea levels, even though there are enough healthy beaches on all continents, refuting this theory.
In the Seafriends web site (www.seafriends.org.nz/oceano/beachgo.htm), Dr Anthoni extensively documents and explains what keeps beaches alive, what makes them sick and how they can die. It is all about simple physics, and his findings can equally simply be proved or disproved. "The problem is, that no scientific work has been done on measuring the physical parameters involved in the beach self-repair process. It is a large gap in our knowledge", explains Dr Anthoni, "I challenge engineers and coastal scientists world-wide to prove me wrong."
Failed engineering solutions have been documented extensively, but even remedial actions we consider 'beneficial and necessary', such as planting dunes, cause beaches to die. We are obsessed by our need to stabilise sand that moves, destroying pristine wilderness areas in the process. But planted dunes do trap sand effectively, growing tall and lifting the sea wind off the beach. As a result, the beach sand won't dry quickly enough and it won't be blown onto the dunes. The beach's self-repair mechanism has been impaired. The first storm eats out a steep scarp in the planted dune, which won't collapse due to the many roots holding it together. Each successive storm lays the beach flatter, until eventually, it won't dry at all. The beach dies. It then becomes a matter of time for the sea to eat away all of the dunes. This kind of beach erosion happens all over the world, and has been caused by planting the dunes.
One of the problems with processes like eroding beaches, is that they happen so slowly. To confuse matters further, a decade of beach erosion, can be followed by one of beach growth. Healthy beaches are amazingly resilient against storms, but very susceptible to human processes. Simply put: Humans like beaches but beaches dislike humans. Wherever humans appear, beaches disappear. Human sewage, pollution from farming and runoff from the land, all help to destroy beaches by impairing their self-repair mechanism. Add to that the wind-sheltering effect of coastal trees, dwellings and hotels, and the recipe for losing all of our most valued places, is complete.
With his direct attack on scientists and engineers, Dr Anthoni hopes that administrators, governments and action groups take notice and redirect their resources and efforts to the real causes of beach and coastal erosion. The Seafriends web site is being written to educate ordinary people about the physics that governs our lives and the functioning of our planet. It is easy to read and understand. Read it, understand it and use it to become an effective conservationist.
The author can be contacted
Date: 20 February 2001
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