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The sandkeeper 

Reading our beaches with Orrin Pilkey

Don't ask him to talk about shells. The beach is so much more than that. It's not that Orrin Pilkey doesn't like shells, he just wishes that when people are at the beach they weren't so, um, shellcentric.

"The beach is so rich," Pilkey says, leaning forward in his chair in a conference room cluttered with charts, maps and rock samples at Duke's Program for the Study of Developed Beaches. "But most people just think about seashells and birds and walk on by a huge amount of information."

From the rill lines in the sand, the make-up of the swash, the angle of the shore, the sound of the sand, you can derive all kinds of knowledge, he says.

His desire to explain beach dynamics to a wider audience led to How to Read a North Carolina Beach, his paperback collaboration with fellow beach scientists Tracy Monegan Rice and William J. Neal. When it came out, I started into it braced for an academic foray into coastal geology. What I got was a whole new pair of sunglasses. I've never looked at a beach the same way again--something everyone I've talked to who has read the book has also said. By not making it expensive (around $12) or overly extensive (162 pages intro through index), Pilkey and his compatriots succeeded in producing a fine, accessible book about the beach as well as one well suited to reading by the shore.

It's the kind of book that will change your vocabulary along with your outlook--swash, brack, scarp, rill lines, ephemeral mud balls. And like any good work of nonfiction, it answers plenty of questions. Why is there suddenly a strip of dark sand? What makes sand bark or sing when you walk across it?

Pilkey is one of the world's top beach experts and tracking him down can be a chore. He spent half of this month checking out things in Mozambique and he's a regular visitor to Japan, Australia and other countries with active, extensive coastlines.

In this state he's been one of the top scientists making the case for letting nature do what it wants on our extensive network of barrier islands and mitigating the effects of a non-stop coastal building boom.

"It seems like all you have to do is show up with your hair combed and you get a [building] permit," he says.

The key to our coast, he says, is to remember that there's a dearth of good sand offshore.

Because of that, Pilkey has teamed up with the state's Coastal Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund and others to challenge the way beaches are getting renourished.

"We're getting bad beaches out of this because we're doing it on the cheap," he says.

He's not happy with the way dredging and piping sand ashore has gone, especially lately, and Duke's Program recently released a white paper on renourishment that questions both where sand is being pumped from and the quality of the sand.

"Nourishment is a poor word for it, really," he says. "Nourished beaches are eroding as much as 10 times the rate of natural beaches."

In some places, he says, the sand is moving away as fast as they're putting it on. He points to recently nourished Atlantic Beach where there's serious scarping (quick, intense erosion).

In addition to faster erosion, there've been other problems. There's a nasty band of shell hash (crushed shells), for instance, that's made wading in the water around Pine Knoll Shores a lot less fun. Pilkey's also come out against plans to draw sand from ebb tide deltas around Bogue Banks because of the unpredictable nature of how that will effect sand supplies in surrounding areas.

And then there are those damn ephemeral mud balls--clumps of rock or hard packed clay sucked up by the dredges and shaped by wave action into round lumps. Atlantic Beach, Topsail Island, Carolina Beach and Long Beach have all suffered from a mud ball attack as a result of renourishment gone awry, he says. "They come from hitting a patch of bad material while dredging," he says, the result of not spending enough time researching what might be on the bottom like ancient lagoons with compacted sediments.

He doesn't shy away from these topics in How to Read a North Carolina Beach, but he doesn't dwell on them--or the thornier topic of global warming and sea-level rise--either.

The book, he said, was meant to inspire people to be curious about the dynamics of the shore and the geological oddities (like those little holes that suddenly appear) it offers.

So, read a few chapters then take a walk in the sand and see if you're not looking at things differently. Just remember to watch out for those ephemeral mud balls.

  • Reading our beaches with Orrin Pilkey

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