Shrinking Beaches and Polluted Waters
How New Jersey coastal towns are dealing with the effects of climate change.
From Sandy Hook to Cape May, the New Jersey coast is plagued by pollution and erosion as sea levels rise and hurricanes increase. Trash left at the bottom of the ocean is churned up by storms and deposited onto the shores of NJ beaches. Many residents have seen stronger storms damage their beaches as the sea encroaches on oceanfront homes and other infrastructure.
Long Beach Island is under constant threat of flooding and erosion since Barnegat Bay sits to the west and the Atlantic Ocean is to the east. Many people are starting to take notice of the climate change. Nancy Allmers is an 82 year old permanent resident living on the barrier island who fears it is just a matter of time until beach replenishment projects won’t be enough to save her town’s beaches.
“I think the people that live here year round are more concerned about the future of this island,” Nancy Allmers said. “Because I’m sure they’re going to say at some point, if you lose house due to a storm you can’t rebuild.”
Nancy and her daughter Kim have experienced numerous storms since living on the island for over 30 years and Superstorm Sandy has been the worst and most devastating.
“The ocean came and moved all the sand into the streets,” Kim said. “These were their only homes and everything was out on the curb. Their belongings, everything was ruined.”
Hurricane Sandy was a harsh wakeup call to many New Jersey residents, especially the people living in coastal communities. Homes are being built up on higher foundations and beach replenishment projects have taken place in preparation for the next superstorm.
Sections of Long Beach Island are designated wildlife preserves housing maritime forests and animals. Scott Gurian from NJ Spotlight reported on a family in Holgate in 2015 who received only six feet of flooding during Hurricane Sandy thankfully due to the remaining tract of wetlands across from their home. Other neighbors further away from the wetlands were heavily damaged.
Wetlands absorb some of the wave energy and act as a natural barrier against flooding and erosion. Overdevelopment has removed most of the island’s vegetation and Kim is worried there is nothing there to hold the sand in place if a big storm hits.
“Nothing is permanent unfortunately, down here, living on a barrier island,” Kim said. “It’s beautiful, but it does have some negativity to go with it.”
Farther down along the coast, North Wildwood has been severely battered in 2020 resulting in $5 million in damage dotting the beaches in scarps. Scarping occurs when high winds and waves erode sections of the beach leaving small steep cliffs called scarps. A few miles south, Wildwood residents enjoy wide beaches with no eminent signs of erosion affecting beachfront property.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has blocked North Wildwood from dredging sand from the neighboring Hereford Inlet acting on a conservation law passed in 1982 by Congress. Before erosion damage, the area used to be covered in bayberry bushes, protective dunes and sprawling wildlife. Now, North Wildwood’s primary concern is building the beaches back for its residents while battling it out with the US Fish and Wildlife agency.
Jesse Kolodin, a professor at Montclair State University in pursuit of his PhD in environmental management, has been examining the New Jersey coastline and watching how communities deal with the aftermath of storms. Kolodin’s current research site focuses on Long Beach Island.
“New Jersey sits in this kind of wedge where if hurricanes do make their way up here — we’re actually celebrating 8 years of Superstorm Sandy — they can obviously bring in large storm surges,” Kolodin said.
The New Jersey beaches are constantly reshaped due to storms and natural tidal movements as sand is transported up and down the coast. Some coastal towns look different than others due to the human mitigation structures built in the area.
“Groins and jetties can force erosion to occur a lot faster on the other side of the groin,” Kolodin said. “Pumping sand offshore onto shore is a lot better sustainably speaking in the long term. It lasts longer than putting in hard structures.”
Although there are benefits to erosion mitigation structures, jetties cause disturbances in longshore drift , marine animal habitats could be ruined and towns on the other side of a seawall will be negatively affected.
Beach replenishment involves dredging sand from nearby areas and depositing it onto beaches to build up dunes and protect infrastructure. These projects can be costly but Kolodin says coastal towns are now turning to this solution in 2020 hoping to prolong permanent erosion damage.
Aside from New Jersey’s beach erosion, pollution is the other major crisis affecting small pockets along the coast. When garbage ends up in the ocean it moves with the tidal currents and can take years and years to break down.
Sandy Hook is known for its long picturesque beaches and hiking trails. Many visitors flock to the Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area for swimming, bird watching, hiking, boating and camping. Frequently now, garbage and other types of pollution are washing up on the beach and a group of high school teens started to take notice.
“We were at the beach one day playing spike ball and we just saw a massive amount of garbage on the beach,” said Middletown highschool senior Asher Zimmerman. “And you know, it’s just hard to see that at a place where we live and our home area.”
Asher Zimmerman, along with seven other friends from Middletown Highschool formed The Jersey Cleanup Crew, a volunteer group dedicated to cleaning the areas around Sandy Hook and Middletown, NJ. Some of the abandoned objects they have found range from empty coffee containers and laundry detergents to a beach umbrella and a damaged chimney.
Ross Begnino is also a member of the Jersey Cleanup Crew and a Middletown Highschool senior. “We invite anybody to come join us and we just like having a good time. It should feel fun helping the earth,” he said.
The group started in early August 2020 and since then, they have had five cleanup events. During one event, the Jersey Cleanup Crew collected nine garbage bags full of trash on the bayside of Sandy Hook and there was still more than half the garbage remaining on that section of the shoreline. The teens hope that their actions will leave a positive impact on the beach community.
Along the rest of the New Jersey coastline, similar scenes of pollution are unfolding. Large storms churn up pollution sitting at the bottom of the bay or ocean and this is pushed onto shorelines. Nancy Allmers remembers when the bay outside her home used to be so clean that she would watch the crabs crawl into the crab traps underwater.
“When we talk about pollution, it really comes down to an individual thing,” Kolodin said. “You need people to have recognition and for people to care.”
Kevin Doyle is an aspiring professional multimedia journalist. He is currently a senior at Montclair State University majoring in journalism with a minor in general business planning to graduate in spring 2021. He loves food, working out, spending time outdoors and considers himself a horror movie enthusiast. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.