Waves of Change: Long Island’s Battle to Save Its Coastline

In the wake of another stronger-than-predicted storm this December, Long Island is again dealing with flood cleanup. It’s become commonplace in many coastal and low-lying communities, with residents bailing out basements and watching streets turn into waterways.

Moody’s Analytics ranks Long Island fourth on its list of metropolitan-area communities most vulnerable to chronic physical risk from the effects of climate change, primarily due to sea level rise and water stress.

Kathleen M. Fallon, PhD, senior coastal processes and hazards specialist at New York Sea Grant, says that Long Island is particularly affected because of its large population in coastal areas. Sea levels rise due to a number of factors, including melting glaciers and ice sheets and the expansion of water as it warms, and has accelerated to an average of 3.6 millimeters per year. This rise makes flooding conditions more likely due to rising tides and elevated storm surges—which then reach further inland.

“With climate change, we are expecting to see more frequent and probably more extreme storm events. So the flooding related to sea level rise and storm surge will likely increase,” Fallon warns.

Superstorm Sandy’s massive destruction in 2012 was a wake-up call that led to increased attention on coastline resilience. Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains the Fire Island to Montauk Point Project (FIMP), 83 miles of beaches along the south shore, with “beach nourishment,” the process of dredging sand from inlets and shoals and artificially adding it to the beaches to combat erosion and provide more barrier. They also elevate structures and construct coastal process features. It’s a $1.7 billion project meant to protect Long Islanders from flood risks.

But after the massive beach and dunes erosion, is Fire Island a lost cause? Fallon doesn’t think so, despite that we’re bucking nature. There’s a phenomenon called barrier island rollover, which is that barrier islands naturally migrate inland in response to elevated water levels. “So in a bubble, without any people, Fire Island would go through this natural process and it would adapt to sea level rise,” she says. “One of the reasons we are having issues is because we’ve developed Fire Island. Instead of allowing it to maintain its dynamic processes, we are expecting, as humans, that the island will stay where we want it to.”

Fallon doesn’t think it’s time for homeowners to give up, but does advise that prospective residents educate themselves about the potential issues with flooding and storms.

And if Superstorm Sandy happened today, would we be better prepared this time? “That’s the $1000 question. I want to say yes,” Fallon says. “But honestly, I don’t know.”