Why Scientists Are Urging Us to Look at Managed Retreat

How to protect coasts from sea-level rise

New York City’s Future Is Very, Very Wet

Why Scientists Are Urging Us to Look at Managed Retreat




A group of researchers published an array of papers last week looking at the issue of forced climate relocation. The Frontlineexplores what this reality looks like in Kotlik, Alaska, where managed retreat is already underway.A photo of Kivalina, Alaska, from 2007, which is also undergoing relocation.

Imagine a river swallowing your home whole. Or a wildfire wiping out your entire community. Mother Nature’s power is enough to make a person question whether rebuilding is an option—especially in the era of climate calamity. In fact, some towns and villages are already implementing managed retreat due to rising seas and temperatures.

Managed retreat means different things to different people, but it involves moving an entire community to protect its residents from immediate or urgent climate impacts. Some communities may need to move only a few hundred feet to be safe. Others may need to relocate entirely. Managed retreat can be super complicated for remote villages where sewage, water, and power lines aren’t abundant. As you can imagine, this process can be quite costly, too. And state and federal governments don’t currently have a system to effectively support communities in need.

That’s why several researchers came together last week to publish a special section in the research journal Science. In the papers, more than 20 scientists from around the world covering topics such as decolonization and economicscall on policymakers to take the proper steps to prepare for a future where managed retreat will become necessary. Though the team attempted its own analysis on the issue, many questions remain around who will be impacted where and what it’ll cost to help the most vulnerable.

Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re introducing you to Kotlik, Alaska, a community already on the move. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Leaving one’s home behind is never easy. Unfortunately, the climate crisis is forcing it upon many of us.

Victor Tonuchuk Junior has lived in Kotlik, Alaska, all his life. As the tribal environmental coordinator for the village, Tonuchuk is responsible for the community’s environmental issues. And there are plenty. Kotlik is a small village—home to fewer than 900 people and only three square miles large—but its remote and rural nature makes it easy for elected officials to ignore. But Kotlik residents need Congress and the White House to pay attention—because their home is sinking. And they can’t save it (or themselves) alone.

A group of scientists have come together to call on legislators and researchers to take action on the issue of managed retreat: “This special issue examines how research can engage with and support communities and governments navigating this uncertain landscape… Thus, we must consider not only what science can do but also how science is done, and by whom,” wrote Brad Wible, senior commentary editor for Science, in the opening of the journal’s special section published Thursday.

Managed retreat goes by several names, as Wible outlines in the commentary. There’s climate migration, relocation, climate displacement, among others. These terms all look at basically the same event where residents are forced to move due to climate impacts. For some, wildfires may be to blame. For others, flooding. The impacts vary by region and geography, but the outcome is always heartbreaking. That’s certainly the case for Tonuchuk and his Alaska Native community. In summer 2019, for instance, Kotlik residents jumped into emergency response mode after the corners of a home were hanging over the riverbank due to the ongoing erosion affecting the village.

“It causes a lot of anxiety for me,” Tonuchuk said. “I worry for the residents who face these threats, and it worries me more when they feel like they are alone and they don’t know what to do.”

And, in many ways, communities like Kotlik are alone. There’s no single governmental body that facilitates the managed retreat process. For places like Kotlik, relocation means building new roads, creating sewage and power lines, and moving 21 existing houses. That involves coordinating help from several agencies, said Max Neale, a senior program manager with the Center for Environmentally Threatened Communities at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit partnering with about 44 Alaskan communities on plants for managed retreat, erosion, flooding, or impacts to infrastructure. For residents in remote villages like Kotlik, sometimes the only help available comes from each other and local groups dedicated to providing resources like the consortium.

“The federal government does not take a strategic approach to supporting our communities with climate change,” Neale said. “There is no lead funding entity, and there’s no clear policy. There are all of these different entities working independently, and we have to navigate all of the different programs and their requirements and limitations, which is extremely challenging.”

President Joe Biden has made the climate crisis a priority, but his administration has yet to address the gaps that exist around managed retreat. According to Neale, there is an $80 million annual funding gap over the next 10 years among Alaska Native villages alone. The amount of money governments are pouring into this urgent issue is nowhere near enough to address the need. That’s, in part, due to the fact that many programs that currently exist don’t cater to communities facing this reality. Agency regulations, grant requirements, and inevitable ineligibility make it impossible for communities to access funds—which are often competitive enough to access as is.

“Managed retreat is one possible solution to get people out of harm’s way, but it’s also the most traumatic way for a community to tackle this.”STEPHEN EISENMAN 

Stephen Eisenman, the cofounder and director of strategy for the Anthropocene Alliance, a national network of grassroots environmental justice groups, is seeing this reality play out across the country. From the Geechee in South Carolina to homeowners in New York, coastal communities are facing increased risk from extreme weather disasters. While some (like Kotlik) recognize they must move to survive, others struggle to grapple with this prospect, especially communities of color that have dealt with enough displacement and abandonment as is.

“Managed retreat is one possible solution to get people out of harm’s way,” Eisenman said, “but it’s also the most traumatic way for a community to tackle this because it means giving up their homes, their communities, their friends, their families, places that they’ve known and loved for years. So it’s a controversial solution for many communities we work with.”

The trauma only compounds when a community’s elected body is failing to protect them. That’s why researchers are speaking out. Many communities can’t prepare for what’s to come simply because the climate-fueled disasters of the future may be unprecedented in nature. Trying to ride them out or build resilient infrastructure may not be possible everywhere. However, the topic of managed retreat requires more research to understand what is possible and to ensure that these processes happen equitably with the community’s needs first and foremost.

“Displacement is happening everywhere,” Bina Desai wrote in an email. The head of programs at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, Desai published a paper on the human cost of displacement for Science’s special section. “By understanding who is at risk of being displaced, and where, and how long those who are displaced are likely to remain so, and in what conditions, governments and the international community will be better equipped to prevent future displacement and address displaced people’s needs.”

That’s why two authors with the special section wrote a paper looking specifically at how to make retreat more proactive and effective. “Even though retreat, to date, has not gone that well, what we know is that it may be crucially important as the climate continues to change,” said Katharine Mach, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami who coauthored that paper. “So what we really do in this paper is basically say, If retreat in the future is to be more supportive of people and the full diversity of passions and goals that they have, what might that mean?

Managed retreat can’t live on its own island of political thought and imagination. It needs to be woven into discussions around housing affordability, urban and rural development, and green space expansion, said Mach’s coauthor, A.R. Siders, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. Leaders need to not only focus on buying out and tearing down houses; they need to prioritize building new ones. Most importantly, they need to keep the community’s emotions in mind. For some Indigenous peoples and Alaska Natives, for example, the land they live may be more than a home. It may be an ancestor or relative.

Luckily, the people of Kotlik won’t be moving too far as of yet. They’re looking to move only about a half mile from where the community currently stands. Still, they may have to move again after sea levels rise. “Who knows?” Tonuchuk wondered out loud when discussing this possibility.

The land and waters don’t provide like they used to. The salmon are fewer, and the permafrost is melting. And yet they push on—attempting to save one building at a time from the encroaching river. For now, the community is taking it one step at a time.

Correction, June 22, 2021, 11:20 am ET: The story previously described the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium as working with communities on managed retreat plans exclusively. Not all communities are yet planning for managed retreat. The story has been clarified to correct this error.

How to protect coasts from sea-level rise


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.

North-facing native plants form a living shoreline on Moran Creek in Lancaster County, Va. (Credit: Kathy Powell). Copyright protected.

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.

How well do soft and hard methods protect the shoreline?

“It truly depends on what you’re trying to protect,” said Kimberly Penn, climate coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office for Coastal Management, which now encourages living shorelines.

Seawalls and their smaller cousins, bulkheads, can keep water out, the same way any high, thick, sturdy wall would.

But only if it’s your high, thick, sturdy wall.

A neighbor without hard protection will generally suffer increased damage from waves deflected by an adjacent property with a wall.

“They so dramatically alter what’s going on next door that erosion rates seem to just skyrocket,” said Steven Scyphers, another researcher with Northeastern’s Marine Science Center.

The land behind a wall isn’t totally safe either. A hard structure actually amplifies the force of the waves that hit it. Add in the extra water from sea-level rise, and the dynamic gets worse.

The result is scouring. That’s when waves hitting a wall have nowhere to go, so they go down, digging out whatever’s below the wall. If waves go over the top of the wall, they’re likely to scour out the other side, too.

Bottom line: The wall will eventually collapse.”Artificial CLICK TO TWEET

Water action against a wall will also cause any sand on the water side to wash away – so goodbye, beach. Cumulatively, the impacts mean loss of habitat for fish and animals, and because there’s less vegetation, decreased carbon storage capability. If a wall is blocking a salt marsh, it will prevent that marsh from doing what it’s supposed to do – soak up water during storms.

“The natural science is becoming increasingly clear that artificial structures just are not as ecologically beneficial as the natural,” Scyphers said. “But some are worse than others, and the bulkheads seem to be by far the worst.”

Living shorelines and vegetated dunes are designed to soften water impact by providing a slope the water can run up to dissipate its force. They leave habitat in place for animals and plants. Salt marshes stay in place to do their work. And as long as there’s no other blocking infrastructure, like a road, they let all of the above move and shift as needed.

Source: NOAA

But they really can’t handle the big stuff.”You CLICK TO TWEET

“They can mitigate wave impact, so they can help slow down chronic erosion or help reduce the wave impact during a storm to some degree. But they’re not going to save you from a 12-foot, 16-foot storm surge,” said Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. “If there are areas that are critical to defend, then massive engineering is probably still the best way to do it. You’re not going to defend a coastal nuclear power plant with oyster bags and a salt marsh.”

What are the costs, financial and otherwise, to build and maintain shoreline protections?

Many believe the cheapest shoreline protection is a seawall or bulkhead, because neither needs the maintenance living shorelines or dune systems do.

Not so, according to research by Scyphers. “If you look at what they actually spend, the homeowners with the artificial shoreline spend twice as much money and invest twice as much time in maintaining their shorelines on an annual basis as those with natural shorelines,” he said.

And that’s just regular maintenance. Initial data on storm repairs seem to show the same trend, he said.

Rebuilding a wall that’s had a catastrophic collapse is likely to be far more expensive than replenishing a storm-damaged soft shoreline, which may not need to be fixed at all.

“A living shoreline could have a loss of marsh coverage in one year, but it can rebound on its own the next year,” Gittman said. “Just because a storm comes through and rips up some of your marsh, doesn’t mean it’s failed.”

But it takes a little fortitude to wait. “Some people are never going to be comfortable with that,” she said.

Why not use both?

Living shorelines and dunes need more space than sometimes is available or advisable. Walls, on the other hand, can be impractical for certain locations. So there’s a third option – both.

“Wherever feasible, incorporate living components,” Gittman said, echoing a growing sentiment. She and others recommend augmenting seawalls or bulkheads with offshore rock and rubble deposits, oyster or mussel reefs, and marshes.

“It’s not a true living shoreline,” she said. “But it’s better than just a seawall.”

That’s the thinking behind efforts along Alabama’s 600 miles of twisting shoreline, 40 percent of which is already hardened and 80 percent of which is privately owned.

The Alabama Nature Conservancy is promoting a stair-steps cage system – a series of cages that step down from a bulkhead. As seen in this series of photos, over time, marsh plants grow up through the cage slats, creating a slope that helps dissipate the wave action against the bulkhead.

Photo credit: Mary Bath Charles/The Nature Conservancy

“It’s a lot less intense and doesn’t travel down the shoreline like a bulkhead slap would,” said Judy Haner, director of the conservancy’s marine and freshwater program.

But Western Carolina’s Young has a warning for any shoreline protection: “They’re ‘BAND-AIDs.’”

“I’m very concerned about the fact that many state and federal agencies and many fine environmental organizations are spending all of their time still trying to hold shorelines in place,” he said. “Every living shoreline that’s trying to hold the shoreline in place comes with an expiration date. It may be 10 years from now. It may be 20 years from now. But with continuing rising sea levels, they’re going to be gone.”

So why isn’t everyone choosing soft shorelines?

Public policy in the U.S. makes it a lot easier to build hard shoreline protections than soft ones.

“In North Carolina right now, you can get a bulkhead permit in a couple of days, sometimes even the same day,” said Gittman, who conducts much of her research there. “The living shoreline takes a longer period of time, usually 30 days.”

The story is much the same at the federal level. Under the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers has permitting jurisdiction over structures in the water, and that includes most shoreline protections. The Corps has a general permit offering streamlined approval for most hard structures.

But soft ones – living shorelines in particular – almost never qualify for the simpler general permit.

That could be changing. On June 1, the Corps unveiled a draft general permitfor living shorelines that it hopes to have in effect by March 2017, Gittman and Scyphers said: They would also like to see national restrictions and disincentives for seawalls and bulkheads.

Among the states, only a handful have regulations that specifically encourage non-hard shoreline protection. Outright prohibitions of seawalls and their relatives are almost non-existent. And in most states, if you already have a seawall, you can rebuild it indefinitely.

The Case of the Eroding Rhode Island Beach Road

Rhode Island could be exhibit “A” of why it’s so difficult to give up seawalls. Widely considered the most forward-thinking state for advancing softer shoreline protections, Rhode Island has been discouraging seawalls for years – though it outright prohibits them from only a small category of properties.

But even those policies were no match for the folks in the Matunuck section of South Kingstown, a coastal town 30 miles south of Providence. Matunuck Beach Road lies feet from the water, and waves eroding the sand threaten to collapse the road. It is the only access to nearly 250 homes.

After looking at the options, Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council chose the very thing it tries to discourage – a seawall, in this case made from layers of steel known as sheet pile and concrete.

“It was kind of like the least evil thing,” said Laura Dwyer, the Council’s public educator and information coordinator, who said the waves along Matunuck Beach are too ferocious for a living shoreline. “Aside from relocating the road and waterline underneath it, this was the only other option,” she said.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

Once the seawall was built, there would still be a number of properties left on the water side of it, including the Ocean Mist, a tavern sitting on stilts right at the water’s edge. Its owner waged a several-year battle claiming the wall would ultimately result in the loss of the Ocean Mist.

He was probably right, since seawalls typically cause the beach on the water side to wash away. “That is the evil of any sort of shoreline protection facility that you build,” Dwyer said. “Where it ends – you’ve got a problem. It’s going to exacerbate erosion.”

In the end, the Council green-lighted another hard structure to keep the Ocean Mist from washing away – at least in the near term. The Council is allowing the Ocean Mist to rebuild an old revetment – a somewhat porous stone wall just off the shoreline designed to lessen wave impact – to save the building from its almost assured destruction.

But in truth, it’s just a temporary fix. “We really need to look long-term and think about if we really should be living here,” Dwyer said. “The general public perception is that it’s going to protect things,” she said of a hard protection. “But it won’t.”TAGGED: Jan Ellen Spiegel


Jan Ellen Spiegel is a long-time Connecticut-based journalist whose career has included radio, television, print, and digital reporting. She has won awards for her reporting on energy, environment, climate… More by Jan Ellen Spiegel Search for: