Memorial Day weekend begins the annual great migration from the Philadelphia region to the beloved Jersey Shore. When visitors arrive in their favorite towns, they may notice, as residents do, that the coast is changing at an accelerated pace. The rising sea is pushing back beaches, forests, and marshes. Flooding is more frequent.
And, the danger posed by a rising sea is made even more extreme by the fact that coastal land is sinking, according to a Rutgers University study.
The state knows the Shore is in trouble. Mother Nature delivered that message loud and clear six years ago with Hurricane Sandy, which killed 117 people and cost $50 billion in damage.
It's foolish that New Jersey's state and local governments didn't use the disaster as an opportunity for sweeping new approaches to coastal protection. They didn't create a special building code for flood-prone communities, build up bulkheads, or upgrade storm sewers to stop higher tides from flooding neighborhoods. Instead, they mostly rebuilt what was already there.
But with former Gov. Chris Christie and his reckless disregard for the environment gone from Trenton, planning for a safer future is getting back on track. This month, the Legislature began moving bills to update the Shore Protection Master Plan for the first time since 1981. The updated plan will be a focused blueprint for protecting coastal communities into the future, taking into account the Shore's new reality.
"It's only getting worse, and it's going to get worse faster," says terrestrial ecologist Emile DeVito, manager of science and stewardship with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
He notes that scientists in 1981 thought sea level would rise about a foot a century. Now, they believe sea level will rise from three feet to five feet a century. Forty years ago, the word superstorm wasn't even a term and now superstorms are expected to hit the Shore more frequently and with greater intensity, further weakening natural buffers.
Over time, development and brutal storms wore out natural protections, even in mainland communities where residents thought they were safe from the ravages of the sea. Coastal forests abutting marshes are dying as the marshes recede. Without the marshes, there's not much to stop waves from crashing against mainland communities and taking ground away.
The master plan can capitalize on lessons learned from extreme weather. For example, dunes have done a good job holding back the Atlantic on the ocean side of barrier islands, but the bay sides flood frequently, even in mild rains or moon tides.
The state also should consider letting more properties return to nature. There has to be a point where taxpayers stop rebuilding storm-damaged buildings over and over again.
New Jersey can become resilient as long as it becomes realistic about the effects of climate change.