Editor’s Note: The following is a chapter from the forthcoming book: Retreat from the Sea, which explores how mankind is currently dealing with sea level rise and examines options for the future.
By Bruce A. Smith
I was once a beachcleaner.
During the 1980s, I owned and operated a couple of beachcleaning machines that sifted beach sand, removing trash and debris. My business was called Sandsifter, and the machines were modified potato-harvesters with balloon-sized wheels. The machines had solid screening plates that dropped into the sand, and conveyor blades would draw a bit of sand over the plates as they oscillated, shaking the grains of sand back on to the beach and sweeping the garbage into a rear hopper.
I did this for eight seasons, from 1982 through the summer of 1989. My services were sought by dozens of municipalities and beach clubs throughout the New York-New Jersey area, especially those who could not afford specialized equipment like this but had a need for clean beaches.
Along the way I learned a few things about Mother Nature. I had always been an outdoorsy-kind-of- guy. In fact, I had been a Boy Scout and worked summers at Camp Wauwepex in Wading River, New York. But on the beaches I developed a deeper love of nature, and came to realize that the oceans – and all of our environment – were in deep trouble.
By the end of the 1980s I had heard of the term, “Global Warming.” Even though I was acutely aware of common concerns such as fish die-offs, dramatic decreases in habitat and unfettered pollution, what was most alarming was to learn the seas were rising.
But all of the beach environment was a mess, certainly in New York and Long Island, and it took me a few years to sort out the priorities of which calamity was worse. A number of incidents hit me in the summer of 1988 that drove home the scale of these catastrophes. The first wallop was the summer-long deluge of medical wastes along the beaches of Long Island, driving beach goers away and effectively shutting down the beach business – a loss of $7 billion dollars to the greater New York area.
But the more important events were to unfold the following summer. In August, I was invited to address “Coastal Zone ’89” in Charleston, South Carolina. This was a professional gathering of a wide assortment of folks who work with the ocean shorelines of America, such as scientists from the EPA, US Wildlife and Fisheries, and state and local officials. There were plenty of people from parks and recreation, and the tourism industry. Engineers, program staff, and fellow contractors like me filled the hallways and conference rooms for three days.
I spoke on the growing problem of “floatables,” those objects – mostly plastic, but some glass – that float ubiquitously in our coastal waters and often end up on the high-tide line. Even though Jamaica Bay in New York had an estimated 50,000 tons of floatables stuck in the weeds and jetties that abut the shoreline of Queens, NY, courtesy of decades-worth of nearby landfilling, the folks at Coastal Zone ’89 were most interested in my experiences dealing with floating medical wastes, particularly syringes. However, I didn’t have much to add to the discussion since syringes are made of glass and are best removed by hand and not clumsy machinery, which could easily fracture the syringe and send tiny shards flying all over the sand.
Ironically, what I learned that was of the greatest importance to me was not at the conference, per se, but from a conversation I had with an engineer on the flight down to Charleston. It had to do with sea level rise.
On an Eastern flight out of LaGuardia, I sat next to a coastal engineer from the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey. He told me that the waters in New York harbor were, in 1989, already a foot higher than they had been in the mid-1800s when the US Navy began studying the harbor and shoreline for suitable placements of forts and artillery stations during the Civil War. He also said that he and selected colleagues at PATH-NY-NJ were discussing informally what would happen if a hurricane hit New York harbor head-on.
“It would be catastrophic,” my seat-mate said. “It’ll cause at least $1 billion in damages and take years to rebuild the port facilities. Of course no one wants to talk about this stuff officially, especially the politicians, because it is just too big a problem. No one at the upper levels wants to tell the public what could happen. As a result, nothing is being done. We aren’t preparing for this eventuality at all, and it’s only going to get worse as the sea levels continue to rise.”
My colleague continued, and explained that sea levels had been rising about one inch every decade since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and subsequent wide-spread burning of coal, oil, and wood. He also said that the rise was coming from several sources. One was ice melt as the polar ice caps shrank as global warming accelerated. But another factor was that the oceans were getting warmer, too, not just the air, and as the waters got warmer they expanded in volume.
“Boyle’s Law,” I quipped, proud to show off my chemistry chops. “When a liquid heats up it expands in volume.”
“Correct,” my friend intoned.
We also talked about how global warming was also transferring energy – sunlight was being transferred into heat, and then transferred into kinetic energy in the oceans as they stored the heat. Kinetic energy is an odd scientific concept. Essentially it means “potential” energy, an energy that is not observed until it is released from its static, kinetic state. The usual description is to say that a ball held in one’s hand has kinetic energy, and it is only expressed when the ball is dropped and it bounces.
The same is true with warming oceans. They have more energy as they heat up, and this energy is expressed in strange ways. The salient concern at Coastal Zone ’89 was increased shoreline erosion. As water currents have more oomph, they can push more sand in directions that are not always favorable to humanity. South Florida experienced this phenomenon in spades in the 1970s when South Florida lost all of its beach sand to erosion, and the beaches had to be replenished in a costly and lengthy endeavor by US Army Corps of Engineer dredges.
I was very familiar with this phenomenon because I spent the winter in 1982-1983 sifting the replenished beaches of selected clubs in Miami because the dredge material was not sand, per se, but crushed coral rock, which compacted in place after being tossed upon the beach. It settled much like concrete and the bigger chunks were hazardous to walk upon. Hence, I had a business opportunity. Ironically, another troubling question was where to deposit the collected rocks, and since I wasn’t the only contractor removing unwanted hunks, there were huge mounds sited every few hundred yards along the renourished strand.
When I returned home from Coastal Zone ’89 I continued my study of global warming, looking for more business opportunities and also wondering where I can put my efforts to help the planet. I was surprised by some of my findings.
The increased level of energy in the water is manifesting in higher waves. The US Navy has been studying ocean waves, especially in coastal waters, since WWII. By the time I was researching in 1989, wave heights had increased an average 20 percent since the 1940s. Additionally, rogue wave frequency had also increased, from one-of-ten to one-of-of-seven. Rogue waves are often benign, and are usually called “surfer’s waves” as they are the slightly larger and more powerful waves to ride.
But, rogue waves are an anomaly that I don’t think is fully understood. Normal waves are caused by wind pushing water, but wind velocity is not constant nor are the contours of the ocean floor. Perhaps these dynamics combine and a rogue wave is one that it out-of-sequence, able to double up on another wave or borrow some of its energy, and builds itself to be bigger than its neighbors.
Currently, rogue waves are becoming very troublesome to commercial shipping. The United Nations has just initiated a global study of rogue waves because some can be huge, 70-100 feet high, and these monsters form most frequently during storms when the ocean already has a lot of wave action. Hundreds of ships encounter these super-rogue waves annually around the world, some with fatal results.
In addition, global warming is not just confined to air temperatures, but also the oceans. I discovered that marine biology students had been monitoring the water temperatures of Newport Harbor, in Rhode Island, waters that averaged about 40-50 feet in depth. The study had begun initially in the 1960s to study the habitat of lobsters, but by the late 1980s they had discerned that the waters at this depth were about 2 degrees warmer on average. That was further confirmation to me that global warming was real.
Another fact that confirmed sea level rise to me was what happened to the rock jetties that were installed on the beaches of Point Lookout in the 1950s, the State of New York’s effort to arrest the erosion of sand from these popular spots. The public beach at Point Lookout was where my family went to swim, and over a few summers I watched the big rocks arrive on flatbed trucks, get hauled into place by giant cranes, and then pushed into a finished, flat position by huge rubber-tired payloaders. It took several summers to complete the job for about twenty jetties along a four-mile stretch of sand.
When the jetties were new, I never saw a wave break over the top of the jetty – not even close. But by the 1990s, the level of the ocean at high tide was often close to the top of the jetties, and in storms the waves easily broke over the top of the rocks.
Of course, the actual boulders settled over the years and lowered themselves deeper into the water, relative to the surface, but the difference between what I remembered as a kid and what I saw as a middle-aged adult was striking. It had to be more than just rocks shimmying into place. To me it confirmed sea level rise.
Along those lines, another event was quite searing. As a kid who grew up near the ocean and then later worked at the beach, I was familiar with the extra-large tides known as “spring tides,” or as they are called in Florida, “King Tides.” These are the regular high tides that are higher than normal due to the amplification of the moon’s impact during “Super Moon” phases. These are times when the moon’s orbit is closer to the earth and the full moons during those cycles are intensified. We recently had some of that on the Super Moon of November 14, 2016. But spring tides can occur when the moon is not in its “super” phase, and I witnessed one that was both amazing and frightening.
In mid-December of 2006, I went to dinner with my parents at one of their favored fish restaurants on the “Nautical Mile” of Freeport, New York. Nautical Mile is an old canal that stretches from Great South Bay inland nearly a full mile into the commercial district of Freeport. In the Roaring 20s, the canal was famous for off-loading booze from motorboats that had zoomed in from bootlegging freighters moored out in the ocean. But now, after the repeal of Prohibition, the canal had became the playground of yacht clubs and marinas, and was graced with plenty of great eateries.
My parents favorite spot was the “Yankee Clipper,” located where the canal joins the bay. After a wonderful dinner, I accompanied my parents to the front of the restaurant and left them in the lobby while I retrieved the car. But as I stepped out I saw nothing but water – the tide had come in and had flooded the entire parking lot. Through above-ankle-deep water I ran, got in the car gingerly as the water was only a few inches below the door frame, and started the engine. Once I knew it would run and not suck in water, I drove to the front door.
There was no storm that night and the evening air was still. But the full moon smiled blissfully on a strange watery landscape. Instead of marsh grasses and the small hummocks of muddy islands, I saw nothing but the vast shimmer of water all the way to the horizon.
I rushed into the restaurant to hurry my parents along, but I found only my mother.
“Where’s dad?” I called out. “We’ve got to get out of here right now, the tide is coming up and has flooded everything.”
“Your father’s in the men’s room,” my mother said. I rushed to get my dad. I told him we had an emergency and had to leave. Even though he was frail and 89 years old, we got out quickly.
By the time we got back to the car the water was nearly at the bottom lip of the tail pipe of the family Volvo. I drove slowly away from the restaurant and saw water gushing up through the manhole covers in the middle of the street. They were my markers to the center of the roadway, which was crowned and thus was the highest spot in the road. Water was lapping at the front doors of every house and building along the Nautical Mile, and at a crawl we drove down the road. There was no other traffic, thank gawd, and no one was out – the whole episode was happening without anyone knowing about it. Within five-ten minutes we had made it inland to where it was dry, and we returned home without incident.
Surprisingly, the high-tide did not make it into the papers the next day, but I kept my eye on the news in the future. A month later, a regular winter storm came in at the full moon and swamped the entire area again, this time a foot or two higher, and many people’s homes were flooded. The newspapers the next day were filled with reports detailing the widespread damage, and many homeowners stated they were selling their homes because they were tired of dealing with the too frequent flooding.
That dynamic was multiplied greatly in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy blew in. Not only were thousands of homes flooded, but many were damaged or destroyed. Later, FEMA caused a major political outrage because they re-zoned much of the south shore of Long Island, declaring that homes had to be 11 feet above sea level to be free of the federally designated hurricane flood zone, which added thousands of homes to that category. Since that ruling decreased the property value of these homes, many were angry. Such is the political cost of doing the right thing to protect lives and property.
These personal experiences supported what others were telling me. Through the 1980s I became increasingly fascinated with Native American mysticism and New-Age thought. I attended sweat lodges and workshops run by shamans, such as Sun Bear, and a Cherokee fellow from North Carolina named Hawk Little John. I loved both men, and they helped sharpen my perspective on what was happening to the planet through pollution, habitat loss, and global warming.
In addition, I read the literature that explored the spiritual side of the environment, such as The Gaia Hypothesis, which described how the planet was a living being, complete with awareness and consciousness.
But my biggest teacher was Ramtha, the Enlightened One. The first teachings of his that I read were on the environment, and they meshed completely with what I was observing. But Ramtha went much further. To me it felt like he could see over the horizon and see what was coming our way. He could see the causality between events occurring now to those in the future. In frank terms he described how the actions today would trigger other, more destructive events, tomorrow.
As a result, I began to realize that global food production was at risk as the global climate changed. I could see the geopolitical impacts of famine and the loss of clean water resulting in migrations and war. Not only could I see how all of nature was connected, but I could fathom how all of mankind and our needs were intertwined with the needs of Mother Nature. As she suffered, so would we.
Ramtha’s advice was simple, but life-changing. He suggested that people leave the cities and find a place in the country where they could dig a well, plant their own foods, and live in greater harmony with nature. He also advised that people store food, such as rice and beans, along with lots of water as a hedge to what he called: “The Days to Come.”
He also taught a whole new model of reality, which stressed that “consciousness and energy creates the nature of reality.” He started a school in Yelm, Washington to instruct folks on how to amplify their mind-over-matter skills.
By the end of the 1980s, I found Ramtha’s teachings to be sweet food for my soul, and against the backdrop of what I saw happening in the world around me I decided to sell my beachcleaning business, leave New York and head to the Pacific Northwest to study with Ramtha full-time. There, I began to build a more self-reliant life for myself in the woods.
I’m still here in Eatonville, and as I see the events of 2016 unfold, especially the election, I appreciate the lessons I have learned along the way.
Aftermath of Super Storm Sandy. Pictured above are the remains of a sea wall at the Lido Beach Towers.
Above pictures show emergency stockpiling of sand at Long Beach, NY in the days immediately following Super Storm Sandy