Monday, February 8, 2016

My Environmental Claustrophobia: The Delmarva Seacoast

Hard edges in a curvy world.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Delmarva seacoast and at this weekend's MAEOE conference in Ocean City, Maryland, I really struggled to maintain my focus. Some people think "OC" is the best thing ever to grace their summer vacations. I find it a challenge to just drive through - much less stay there! Enclosed within a conference center, ensconced in a stale hotel bedroom, surrounded by hard edges, I can barely sit still. As busy as I was at the three day event, I was gulping for fresh air, sunshine (or snow and rain - I didn't care), and the wild spaces that punctuate an otherwise overdeveloped coastal zone.  

The January 2016 Nor'Easter bit off a big chunk of the main and only dune and deposited magnetite sands.

I don't know if anyone else suffers the overbuilt environment the way I do, but suffice it to say that after hours walking, driving, or working in the concrete canyons that line the ocean front I am actually shaking for want of an expansive view from bay to sea and, with the traffic noise, my head pounds and my heart races. I've asked my doctor about it and she coined the term environmental claustrophobia  - even wrote it down in my medical file! I have no idea if that's a real thing or not, but she seemed fairly confident I have anxiety issues when it comes to this sort of thing. 

A fairly gloomy mood photo of how I feel in this environment. Ugh.

Traveling through the overbuilt environment I find myself not knowing where I am, unable to orient to the sun, detached from any horizon. I drive on, keeping my eyes on the GPS and the numbered street signs, counting down the blocks to make my escape. I wonder if this is how a migrating songbird bird feels, blinded by city lights, unable to find moon or stars. Then, smack!  I don't want to deny anyone their love of the resort town, but for me its a different kind of sensory overload that makes me uncomfortable, even panicky. My first experience of this "disorder" occurred right after college. I had been training for the classroom and studio in botanical illustration and education. My first year spent in a small office-style studio with one tiny window facing the exterior wall of the building next door made me bolt from that profession into guiding work on the sea islands of South Carolina. The sea islands were my first refuge from confinement in the build environment.

A large, new dune, only  a few weeks old, already marching back from the sea.

This weekend I was lucky to have facilitated an Aldo Leopold Education Workshop down the coast at the wild shores of Assateague National Seashore. After a great morning of indoor and outdoor activities in the re-purposed, light-filled old nature center (now conference room) we were given the last hour of our time together to accompany one of the workshop participants Kelly, the NPS science communicator for the unit, on a guided exploration of storm damage that followed the January 2016 Nor'Easter that hit here only two weeks ago.

A five and half foot campsite marker is barely visible at Kelly's side.

After the workshop we headed out. It was blustery and cold and we were all shivering, but everyone was intensely interested in the dynamic ecosystem that weathered sustained winds of 50mph for almost a full twenty-four hours. Kelly mentioned that there were many 80mph gusts and that some staff stayed on patrol on the island to watch the storm unfold. This reminded me my favorite job while serving in South Carolina - hurricane duty! While OC lost nearly half of its protective (and only) main dune, the wild dunes of Assateague were resilient, moving, and alive. Where blow-outs funneled winds and blasting sand through the main dunes threatening to bury campgrounds, buildings, and parking areas, the park staff hours later was busy moving structures and digging out tarmac to accommodate the birth of new dunes. 

The Leopold group stood atop a newly formed dune that had engulfed the rail fence to the campground.

Staff dig up the campground parking lot to allow the dunes to pass through. A new crushed shell lot is further back.

New dune goes marching through the rail fence.

Looking at all those moving dunes it occurred to me that boundaries don't mean a whole lot to natural processes. Maybe it's what disorients me so much in the overbuilt environment, the idea that everything is defined by hard and solid boundaries. Wind, sand, and water will find its way eventually under, over, and around all those concrete and paved structures of the resort town, but here boundaries are porous and meant to be crossed, sometimes obliterated.  The human heart is no less vulnerable to the desire to cross such lines, but running, jumping, and skipping through the concrete canyons of OC would get most of us killed...

Indian River Life Saving Station on the wild beaches of Delaware.

Coming home from the conference on Sunday afternoon I stopped several times to enjoy the wilder aspects of the Delmarva Coast I traveled north through Delaware. The soft rise of the beaches at Indian River Inlet and the Atlantic were  gouged by recent storm surges, but not so much to appear disastrous. Compared to the stunning videos of streets and neighborhoods inundated under rushing water, sea ice slurry, and driving waves  from New Jersey, OC, and Lewes during the recent storm, these beaches looked as wild and as free as ever. 

Wind-carved dunes at a blow-out.

Submarine towers from WWII stand precarioulsy close to the sea, where once they were sheltered by back dune.

I went as far as Henlopen State Park, a thrillingly wild piece of Atlantic coast and found that several trails were closed due to storm damage. High winds and flooding seawater had punched holes through the protective dunes zone and many trails were deep in mud and debris.  Seawater still stood in pitch pine forest  in the back dune area, and here new dunes were marching over them heading inland, as a wild beach needs to do. Dead and dying pine forests will soon be covered by advancing dunes and the next layer of pine forest will be exposed and shaped by salt-laden winds and desiccating  sun.

Long-tailed ducks.

Common loon in winter plumage.

A curious long-tail.

As I walked along the wild beach I snagged a few shots of wintering northern waterfowl in broad tidal guts and just offshore beyond the breakers. Loons in their gray cloaks and long-tailed ducks dappled in sporty black-white-gold attire paraded by the few beachcombers on this cold, breezy morning. The fall-out of the storm was everywhere: hundreds of young, small, dead horseshoe crabs, mounds of shells, a dead black-backed gull. A noisy State Police helicopter crept slowly down the surf zone while a team of photographers leaned out both open bay doors, documenting the many breaks and breaches. New tidal ponds flooded the upper beach, and just offshore were large sand bars heaped high enough that incoming surf broke there. Birds scattered and the sand blew up in stinging vortexes as the helicopter made its way slowly down the beach. I got a wave from a photographer.

Flooded back-dune areas and trail closures limited my explorations.

A seawater breach through the main dune and a stranded watch tower.

As I made my way back to the access road I had to scoot behind the much flatter main dune through a breach. The ORV road was thick with mud and sinking sands. I had to disobey the almost buried signs that urged visitors to stay out of ecologically fragile dune area. I turned to look one more time at the spotting towers built to guard the coast from German submarines that lurked here in the 1940s. They were erected originally deep in the pitch pine forest to hide the movements of troops and vehicles. Looking back from a seawater breach it was clear that the dune system at Henlopen State Park has retreated at least a full mile since then. Someday (from the looks of it - soon) the towers will topple into the advancing sea as sea and wind carve out their foundations.

High-rises and city streets stand vulnerable to an angry sea just a few yards behind the one protective dune of OC's beach.

In natural process, sea islands and wild coasts such as this move back from the sea during fierce winter storms as high winds drive sands inland and sands stolen from the surf zone are transported out to sand-ledge bars. Those bars are important for the replenishment of beaches just down coast come summer, but modern jetty systems and buildings built too high or too close together stop the sand from moving. The beach starves for sand and it must be either pumped or bulldozed.  I remember a few Gullah families who lived on the islands where I worked in South Carolina who remarked that their moveable mobile homes, though not as fancy or as expensive, were a better bet for relocation than the multi-million dollar homes being built solidly on the edge of the back dune forests.

Storm surge scour line two feet above the tower's now exposed base.

Kelly at Assateague National Seashore had pointed out earlier in the week the differences between beach management plans among various stakeholders along the Mid-Atlantic Coast. Some towns push sand, some pump, others do both. Some towns have learned to shorten their jetty system to allow sand bars to replenish beaches. Others have made their jetty system longer and those downstream wonder where their beach has gone. Differences between state and federal land managers contrast as well. Depending on how the natural process of wild beach is valued against the economic gains of summer visitation, beach conservation strategies differ widely. Bulldozers push sand back into place at some state facilities who depend upon tens of thousands of paying visitors each summer, so the expense of pushing sand is justified.

Wax myrtle and heath communities are buried as dunes advance, but continue to act as sand traps for new dunes.

ANS serves as a model for wild beach preservation.  Federal equipment crews are tasked to remove entire parking lots, relocate portable bathhouses and restrooms, and reroute roads further back in order to permit the island to move. The 1933 storm breach that separated OC from Assateague National Seashore,  now the Ocean City Inlet, saved ANS from development as investors and builders abandoned their plans to extend the resort city south and instead accelerated plans for new development on Ocean City's bayside and mainland bayfront with new access to the sea. Long jetties at the inlet starve the north end of Assategue Island for sand however, and it remains a management issue between stakeholders. Its a complex management system that makes for interesting conversation and even more dramatic outcomes within a small geographical area.

The 1933 breach is now the Ocean City Inlet. The wild island is moving west while OC resists. Photo credit: NASA.


The Dispatch article marking the 80th anniversary of the 1933 hurricane, with interviews of elders who were children at the time -

Delaware Online assesses the coastal damages of the January 2016 Nor'Easter -

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