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Lack of Beach Sand Buildup Sparks Flooding Concerns

July 30, 2008

By Mitchell Freedman, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

Jul. 30–The failure of some of Long Island’s ocean beaches to build up with sand this year has local officials and residents concerned that powerful winter storms could sweep beachfront houses out to sea and cause widespread flooding.

That worst-case scenario is being looked at because the natural buildup of sand has been interrupted, possibly by stronger-than-normal wave action in the ocean. Consequently, the typical ebb and flow of sand that usually creates a natural barrier to strong storms every summer has not filled the beaches.

“Sand tends to move up and down … but it’s not normal for a beach to disappear this much,” said John Rocker, manager of Hither Hills State Park in Montauk.

Scientists say some of the sand was washed away by pounding waves generated by Hurricane Bertha, which lingered for three weeks offshore earlier this month.

A nagging concern is in the air due to the distinct, beach-wrecking possibility that Long Island could be affected this fall and winter by a hurricane or a strong nor’easter.

Also unnerving: the unusually warm ocean water for this point in the season — about 70 degrees — which is often associated with hurricanes.

The beach at Robert Moses State Park is so narrow that officials have closed off half of parking fields 4 and 5 because there is not enough room on the sand to hold bigger crowds.

“We have a major problem there. … Two or three weeks ago, we had an erosion event and lost beach. That is extremely unusual at this time of year,” said George Gorman, the parks department’s deputy regional director.

“We don’t think we’re going to be able to open those parking fields to full usage.”

Extreme quarters

Bob Burkley, the lifeguard captain at Robert Moses, usually spends his summer dragging his wooden lifeguard stand closer and closer to the water’s edge as the ocean deposits more and more sand. But this year, the tower is right where it started.

More than 25 miles to the east, at the small, private Quantuck Beach Club in Southampton, manager Tom Muhs sees the same thing.

From the first week in May until August, the beach usually builds up and makes up for the sand lost during the winter, when seas are rougher. This year, it hasn’t happened. “We lost probably 75 feet of beach since Memorial Day,” he said. “We’re looking at half the beach we normally have in mid-July.”

Suffolk County’s beaches at Smith Point and Cupsogue are also not building up as much as they normally would, said John Pavacic, commissioner of Suffolk County parks.

And those spots already were sand-starved because of a nor’easter that hit in April 2007.

But not every beach is getting thinner.

The East Hampton Village beach, for example, is in good shape. “I don’t think we have anything seriously out of the norm,” said village manager Larry Cantwell, wryly adding, “No one has reported to me a serious recession, other than the economy.”

The 7-mile stretch of beach at the Fire Island National Seashore’s wilderness area is also doing well, said acting Superintendent Sean McGuinness.

While some Fire Island beaches in places such as Watch Hill and Sailors Haven have had some problems, he said the wilderness area has held up because it has no fixed structures.

“Our dunes are able to move back and forth. … The whole stretch with nothing on it is in the best shape. The barrier island is allowed to be dynamic,” he said.

But, in Westhampton Beach, the village beach is so narrow that lifeguards have been putting up “keep off the dunes” signs to keep people off, something they never have to do when the beaches are broader.

A common factor

Aram Terchunian, a coastal geologist who has served as consultant to several East End towns and villages, says one factor links the beach problems: an unusual weather pattern that has propelled more and often more powerful waves toward the shore.

He has been graphing weather data from federal research buoy 44025, which is moored about 33 miles south of Islip. There hasn’t been a day in the past two weeks when the wave height has been less than 3 feet, and the waves have not been less than a foot and a half only three of the past 50 days, Terchunian said.

The wave data is available online at the National Data Buoy Center’s Web site, ndbc.noaa.gov.

“There have been a series of small storms that have been traversing offshore every five days or so. We don’t see them on Long Island because they are 100 miles offshore … but we get their effects,” Terchunian said. “In May, when the wind starts to blow out of the west, we get beach buildup, but [only] when the waves are less than three feet.”

The height of waves is key. The larger they are, the more energy they contain to pick up sand and move it offshore.

Victor Cassella, a meteorologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, agreed that more energetic waves are striking Long Island’s shoreline.

“Hurricane Bertha affected us for about three weeks. … The constant swells that come from a very slow-moving storm will effect an area for two weeks.”

Gerry Bell, a meteorologist in the NOAA climate prediction center in Camp Springs, Md., said Long Island is experiencing the same weather pattern change that spawned severe Midwestern floods.

Bell noted that the northeast has been getting a lot of moisture in recent weeks — in the form of high humidity, mostly. That signals a lot of energy in the atmosphere, energy sufficient to create more intense waves.

Beaches erode

Many beaches along the South Shore and East End are sand-starved, like this one at Robert Moses State Park, above. Usually by this point in the summer, they naturally would have built back up after winter-time erosion.

1 — Robert Moses State Park

The beach is one-third its normal width at Fields 4, 5.

2 — Fire Island

Thinner than usual for late July

3 — Smith Point

Cupsogue County parks. Still not fully recovered since April 2007 nor’easter.

4 — Westhampton Beach

So narrow they’ve posted “keep off” signs to protect the surviving dunes.

5 — Southampton

Quantuck Beach Club. Lost 75 feet of beach since Memorial Day, with no build-up since.

6 — Montauk

Hither Hills State Park. Lost 200 feet of sand in some places.

Why sand disappear

Lingering effects of Hurricane Bertha

Other storms that churned up the sea all summer

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