Beach Erosion Theory: Greenhouse Effect Melts Polar Ice, Raises Sea Level

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NBC Today Show
Jane Pauley
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Video News Report
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
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In 1983, Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey theorizes that widespread beach erosion is caused by carbon dioxide emissions warming the atmosphere; global warming melts the Antarctic ice caps and raises the sea level.



"Beach Erosion Theory: Greenhouse Effect Melts Polar Ice, Raises Sea Level." Jane Pauley, correspondent. NBC Today Show. NBCUniversal Media. 1 July 1983. NBC Learn. Web. 18 January 2015.


Pauley, J. (Reporter). (1983, July 1). Beach Erosion Theory: Greenhouse Effect Melts Polar Ice, Raises Sea Level. [Television series episode]. NBC Today Show. Retrieved from


"Beach Erosion Theory: Greenhouse Effect Melts Polar Ice, Raises Sea Level" NBC Today Show, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 07/01/1983. Accessed Sun Jan 18 2015 from NBC Learn:


Beach Erosion Theory: Greenhouse Effect Melts Polar Ice, Raises Sea Level

JANE PAULEY, anchor:

It’s a 4th of July weekend. Bags are packed. Skies are clear. Millions of you will be heading for the shore for sun, sandy beaches, and cooling surf. Some will dream, perhaps, even of owning a beach front cottage, but beware. Winter storms and controversial seawalls are hastening the beach front erosion and there is a growing feeling among scientists that we should just let them fall. Dr. Orrin Pilkey is a geologist at Duke University who I think would agree with that. He’s been studying the nation’s shoreline and watching it erode. Why is our shoreline shrinking?

Dr. ORRIN PILKEY (Geologist): Well, there are a number of reasons, but probably the principle reason, the reason that 80 to 90 percent of our shoreline is eroding is that the sea level is rising and the sea level is rising maybe at a rate of a foot and a half per century right now and this rise is expected to accelerate.

PAULEY: What causes this, the rise of the oceans?

Dr. PILKEY: Probably due to an excess production of Carbon Dioxide by automobiles and -

PAULEY: The Greenhouse Effect.

Dr. PILKEY: The Greenhouse Effect, which is warming up the atmosphere, which is melting the Antarctic ice cap very very slowly and -

PAULEY: Well, how fast is this melting process and rising process eroding our shores?

Dr. PILKEY: Well, for every, for a very small increment of sea level rise, you get a very large horizontal retreat, something like the ratio of 1 to a thousand, so if we have a 1 foot rise in sea level this century, we can expect, theoretically, at least, something of the order of a thousand, two thousand feet shoreline retreat on our coastal plain coast.

PAULEY: Is that inevitable or can it be controlled?

Dr. PILKEY: Can’t be controlled, no way to – well, okay, the shoreline erosion problem can be, buildings can be saved by building seawalls, but this creates problems.

PAULEY: Some examples – Galveston, Texas had, well, a hurricane.

Dr. PILKEY: Yeah, 1900, Galveston had a hurricane that killed 6,000 people and in response to this, they built a massive seawall, the largest seawall on any barrier island. I think one can understand why they built it, but the price they paid was basically the loss of -

PAULEY: Can we see the price here?

Dr. PILKEY: Yeah, you can see there’s no beach there. This is Cape May, New Jersey here.

PAULEY: And there’s no beach there either, is there?

Dr. PILKEY: That’s right. This is oldest shoreline resort in America.

PAULEY: Was there a beach?

Dr. PILKEY: There was a beach there up until 1912, 1920- something, like 1918, something like that.

PAULEY: That’s ancient history.

Dr. PILKEY: Yeah, that’s ancient history is right. There is a little beach there now at low tide, but basically the beach is gone and what they’ve done, they have saved the buildings temporarily at the price of the loss of the beach.

PAULEY: You mean, had they sacrificed the buildings, they might still have some beach?

Dr. PILKEY: Yes, if they had allowed the buildings to fall in – very simple – they’d allow the buildings to fall in. The beach would still be there.

PAULEY: Sea Island, Georgia.

Dr. PILKEY: Sea Island Georgia – Now this particular picture here is Palm Beach, Florida, which is one of our more famous beaches, but you can see that the beach is essentially gone here because of the problem of the seawalls.

PAULEY: But Miami Beach had a problem like that, too, and they reclaimed their beaches, didn’t they?

Dr. PILKEY: Yes, they did, quite successfully, but at a cost of $65 million - $68 million for 15 miles of shoreline.

PAULEY: And is it a permanent solution?

Dr. PILKEY: No, it’s a solution that might last a decade, something like that.

PAULEY: So what is the solution in general, like just to throw up your hands and welcome the oceans?

Dr. PILKEY: Well, that’s one of the nice things about this environmental problem is that the best solution is probably to do nothing. That is, to let the houses fall in as their time comes. This is a very politically unpopular solution.

PAULEY: It is.

Dr. PILKEY: There are ways of letting houses fall in. One can buy the houses or one can move the houses before their time comes. The real difficult part of this, though, is what to do about the ten story condominiums that line the shorelines of West Florida, Pinellas County, and places like that. It’s difficult to let them fall in, difficult to move them.

PAULEY: It’s not a real cheerful message.