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Earth Sense: Barrier islands remain vulnerable to storms
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You can’t admire a sunset while gazing out over the ocean at the Georgia coast. Evening sun is on the other side.

But for many, having breakfast with the sun rising over the water is a dream. A beach house also allows for an instant stroll on the sand, or a dip in the surf.

Nature has put up some factors to consider in regard to beachfront property. Hurricane Matthew demonstrated the fragile nature of barrier islands such as St. Simons or Tybee last year.

Grazing the Florida coastline, Matthew reached the eastern shore of Georgia on the evening of Oct. 7. Winds in excess of 100 mph and heavy surf battered the islands until the following day.

In the storm’s aftermath, the shoreline looked very different. Houses closest to the water suffered the most damage. Entire dunes had disappeared, and new inlets had developed, connecting the back channels on the landward side of islands with the ocean waters.

Barrier islands are by no means solid entities. It is in their nature to shift and change constantly. Their origin goes back to the latest ice age, about 18,000 years ago. This makes them some of the youngest geological formations (by comparison, North Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains are 50,000 times as old).

Ocean levels were low, with much of the water tied up in glaciers farther north. Wind piled up sand dunes along the coast. When the ice sheets covering the northern portions of our continent melted, the Atlantic rose again, and the dunes became flooded. Only their tops are still above the water surface, representing today’s barrier islands.

They aren’t normally vulnerable to storm waves. Sand that gets washed over by the waves is taken from one area and deposited in another. Such overwash has kept beaches flat on undeveloped islands.

But real estate owners can’t move with the beach sand. Our laws regard property as fixed in one place. Buildings present an obstacle to the waves, and sand erodes heavily on the waterfront side.

This can undermine the building and make it collapse. Some property can also release enough sand to become permanently submerged, losing all of its real estate value. In spite of many engineered attempts to stop the process, like dune stabilization and beach renourishment, barrier islands sand will continue to move, taking the islands with it.

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