Long before teenagers were imbibing dystopian fiction with unquenchable gusto, my teenage cohort was captivated by Planet of the Apes, the 1968 sci-fi film in which a crew of astronauts crash-lands on an unknown planet in the distant future. More recently, a photograph of a person walking by the remains of a roller coaster in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, demolished by Hurricane Sandy reminded me of the final scene of the film; two human beings along the shore in the “Forbidden Zone”—a region outside of “Ape City” that has remained quarantined for centuries subject to an ancient taboo—stumble upon the charred and buried remains of the Statue of Liberty. Thus they realize that the “alien” planet that was once supposedly the home of other humans is in fact the post-apocalyptic Earth.
David Gard / Associated Press Still from closing scene of Planet of the Apes.
Now I don’t mean to be overly dramatic. But if scientists can’t convince the powers that be that our manner of inhabiting this planet is unskillful, perhaps artists can help conjur some sense of forboding.
Uncompromised, uncompromising news
Get reliable, independent news and commentary delivered to your inbox every day.
It’s the beginnng of week three of post-Sandy life here in the New York/New Jersey metro region and plenty of people unfortunately are still suffering the effects. News coverage has focused national attention on the role of climate change in worsening the effects of the hurricane. But there’s another important lesson we shouldn’t miss: beaches are the most dynamic geomorphic feature on the surface of the Earth and we build fixed structures there at our peril.
My hero, Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology and of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University says that part of the problem is that “we scientists tend to be dullards when it comes to selling our case.” Nonetheless, we have a responsibility to try to do so. As a coastal geologist who has long advocated for retreat as a strategic response to beach erosion, Orrin has definitely done his part. Coining the term “New Jerseyization” to describe the results of unimpeded development and expensive attempts to stabilize beaches with sandbags, groins, jetties, seawalls or “renourish” them with pumped sand, Orrin has been as relentless as the sea in trying to make the point. Check out his warning in the October 1983 issue of Popular Science: “We have two mutually exclusive choices: beaches or buildings. We can’t have both.” And if you want even more on this subject, in The Corps and the Shore (1996) Pilkey and colleague Katharine Dixon examine comprehensively the impact of coastal processes on developed shorelines.
But the fundamental scientific fact is this: beaches move. Look at the image below to see the substantial westward migration of Breezy Point spit, Rockaway, Queens, New York in less than 150 years.NPS display at Fort Tilden NPS Visitors Center, Rockaway, Queens, NY
Like it or not, do not doubt that the future will provide photo-ops for Planet of the Ape-like shoreline scenes if we persist in arming beaches with sea walls, groins or jetties and continue to dump more sand on beaches from which we refuse to relocate. Will an artist please render that scientific fact?