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Shore Study Reveals Opportunity for Growth

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

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Contractors and manufacturers should see an opportunity to grow and be innovative following a recent study on shoreline hardening, its author said.

Rachel K. Gittman, who has been studying shoreline degradation in the U.S., said she hopes engineers, contractors and ecologists can work together to create more natural seashore solutions as coastal development continues to increase.

“When you build a (sea)wall, you are basically drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘This is where the shoreline is,’” said Gittman, who is a postdoctoral research associate with Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center. “There’s a gradient of things you can do to make it more eco-friendly.”

©iStock.com /  aceshot

Homes built near the shore are more likely to sustain damage from storms because artificial shoreline hardening increases storm surge, a new study suggests.

Gittman studies how shoreline hardening (also called armoring) affects natural marshes and the ecosystem along the coast. She and her colleagues also are looking for ways to help those who are developing, building and designing properties along the shore from degrading it further.

U.S. Shore: 14 Percent Hard

Although the practice is common throughout the world—and even more prevalent in countries such as Japan and the Netherlands—about 14 percent of the U.S. coastline (22,842 kilometers, or about 14,193 miles) is covered in some type of man-made structure, Gittman and her colleagues wrote in a paper recently published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which is a journal for the Ecological Society of America (ESA).

In the study, “Engineering Away Our Natural Defenses: An Analysis of Shoreline Hardening in the U.S.,” Gittman et al. conclude that if construction and development trends during the next 100 years continue as they have during the past century, the U.S. coastline will lose its natural defenses.

“A hardened shoreline doesn’t provide the same kind of habitat (for sea life) as a natural shoreline,” said Gittman, who also gave a presentation on her topic in August during the 100th ESA Annual Meeting held in Baltimore.

“We aren’t going to be able to get away from it completely,” said Gittman. “But this is an opportunity for the industry to start to rethink how it develops.”

Substrates Matter

The type of hardening substrate can make a difference, Gittman said. For example, rocks—or even granite, concrete or other non-harmful materials—that are placed in piles are less damaging to the ecosystem than a solid concrete storm wall. Rock piles also can provide marine life opportunities to live more naturally along man-made developments.

“I’ve never seen a fish have a problem with a rock,” said Gittman. “In piles, they can mimic oyster reefs and actually provide a refuge for fish and a place to hide against predators.”

In contrast, solid substrate seawalls can cause more damage in the cases of storm surge. Gittman noted that after visiting the North Carolina shoreline following a hurricane, properties near the coast sustained greater amounts of damage from rising waters as a result of hardened shorelines preventing the natural process of erosion after storms from occurring.

“People are more at risk if they opt for staying put and hardening (the shore) than if they move away from it,” she said.

Closer to the Edge

And, Gittman said, that’s the way shorelines used to be. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started hardening shorelines as a way to keep them from eroding while development near the shoreline began to grow.

“In some ways, we got more courageous,” she said. “Before, people built further back from the shoreline.”

Opportunities for Coatings, Substrates

Advances in coatings and materials in the past several decades also have made a difference in shoreline hardening. For example, Gittman said, concrete manufacturers have developed substrates with integrated, superficial crevices that encourage marine life growth. Those materials can be a compromise where a solid substrate is necessary for shoreline hardening so that a more natural ecosystem can be sustained.

©iStock.com /  monahan

In areas such as Boston, the U.S. shoreline has been artificially hardened to sustain development. About 14 percent of U.S. shores are now hard, a recent study suggests.

Builders who incorporate such materials in their designs also offer the shoreline a more aesthetically pleasing alternative to a solid concrete wall, she said.

Meanwhile, ecologists appreciate the use of anti-fouling coatings on ships because they keep invasive species from entering an ecosystem.

However, builders who use anti-fouling materials along the shore prevent natural ecosystems from forming. Marine life such as barnacles normally would cling to hard surfaces. Bu when an anti-fouling coating is added to the surface such as a concrete wall or barrier, the barnacles—and other marine “fouling” life—disappear.

Meanwhile, although Gittman acknowledges she and her colleagues work to keep the natural environment as in-tact as possible, she also said there’s a place for development and infrastructure even within the ecosystem.

“There’s an industry being developed,” she said. “It’s a matter of how they sell themselves.”


Tagged categories: Concrete; Concrete defects; Concrete masonry units (CMU); Concrete repair; Contractors; Environmental Protection; Environmentally friendly; Green design; Marine; Marine Coatings; Research; Seacoast exposure; Subcontractors; Substrates; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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