Retiring to the coast, or living and working there, is a dream that many people have. If your dream is to sit on the deck and watch the evening sun settling over the ocean, though, you need to move to the West Coast. At a Georgia beach, watching the sun over the water requires getting up at sunrise.\
The physical makeup of our coast is different from California, Oregon or Washington as well. A drive to Jekyll Island makes it clear. Soon after Warner Robins, the rolling hills of the Piedmont give way to the Coastal Plain, with a steady drop toward the ocean. Every so often, there’s a steeper descent, followed by another flat stretch of terrain. Those are marine abrasion terraces, shaped by ancient ocean levels.
Just south of Brunswick, Jekyll Island Road leads through the high marshes with their dense vegetation and waterlogged soils. Approaching the island, you see the salt marsh on both sides, getting flooded twice daily by the tides. After crossing the Intracoastal Waterway, an artificial structure, you’re on the island. This is essentially a set of sand dunes, piled up by wind and wave action when ocean levels were low during the last Ice Age.
Finally, the dunes give way to the beach, the last stretch of land before the Atlantic Ocean. Where there are rows of stones parallel to the beach, property owners have been trying to guard against wave action, with questionable results. Farther north, in North Carolina, such “hard” structures are prohibited and the Army Corps of Engineers has tried to protect dunes and houses with a berm of piled-up sand.
Normally, barrier islands maintain their shape by getting washed over by waves during storms. But buildings prevent this smoothing wave action, and beach erosion is the result. Because this makes the beach narrow and steep or even nonexistent, the corps “renourishes” it regularly by pumping dredged sand onto it.
Severe storms, especially the nor’easters we get during winter, can still carry erosion to beachfront homes and cause varying amounts of damage. The same is true for hurricanes, of course, which commonly arrive in late summer.
When considering beachfront property, it’s wise to remember that the beach belongs to the ocean, and structures built there are best regarded as temporary. With or without climatic change, the action of wind-driven waves has always been a factor at the Georgia coast.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.