North-facing native plants form a living shoreline on Moran Creek in Lancaster County, Va. (Credit: Kathy Powell). Copyright protected. Expert thinking on shorelines has undergone big changes on ‘hard’ vs. ‘soft’ approaches.
By Jan Ellen Spiegel
In the years since Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast and Irene and Sandy inundated just about everything from the Caribbean to Canada, there’s been ongoing second-guessing on what should have been done to better protect those coastal areas.
Once, the instant answer would have been a seawall. Or maybe a bulkhead, revetment, groin, jetty. Something hard to hold back the water.
According to research released in 2015 by Rachel Gittman, a post-doctoral researcher at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, about 14 percent of the U.S. tidal shoreline has been hardened.
But many now believe that softer shoreline defenses are better.
Such defenses allow water and the land next to it to do what they naturally do to protect themselves in the face of storms, sea level rise, and erosion.
Living shorelines are the current darling of the soft concept. They are typically sloping barriers that mimic natural shorelines. They are planted with vegetation and salt marsh to help make them strong. They buffer, but they also move and change as any undeveloped shoreline would.
But all shoreline protections have benefits and pitfalls that need to be weighed against each other.