Shrinking beach is big worry
The Brunswick News
By Michael Hall
February 15, 2014

The St. Simons Island beach between First and Myrtle streets, where Nancy Moore used to spend entire days with a book and her dog as car transports drifted by, now barely exists when the tide rises.

At high tide, Moore, a Canadian who spends three months of winter on the island, says she noticed having very little room to sit when tides rose last year. This year, the situation has worsened.

"When I came back to the same beach this year, there are virtually no rocks even," Moore said, referring to when water rises above the Johnson Rocks placed at parts of the beach after Hurricane Dora hit in 1964 to buffer property on adjacent higher ground.

Now, Moore is wondering how long her stretch of beach will remain wide enough even at low tide.

"It was such a drastic change," Moore said. "I look at it and wonder what it's going to look like next year."

The issue is something Moore pays close attention to because after years of visiting the area, St. Simons Island is as much home for her as is Ontario, Canada.

And she is not the only one watching the tides and the shifting of beaches. Some people in the tourism industry watch the natural erosion and accretion on beaches of both St. Simons and Jekyll islands very closely, because they know that beaches are one of the area's main attractions.

Michael Johnson, general manager of the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort at the St. Simons Island beachfront, has seen photos from the 1940s and 1950s when the beach at the resort was wide.

He now watches daily as high tides push breakers up to rocks that protect a seawall. The hotel's beach now is primarily on the northern side of the property.

With recent northeasterly winds that were blowing off the coast, Johnson said he wonders if the beach will ever be as large as it once was. A few more storms or periods of strong winds causing extremely high tides could wash away even more sand, he suggested.

Although the beach has built up and receded with the normal seasonal changes, Johnson says the beach along the south end of the island is just not what it used to be.

"I don't know if we will ever get significant beach back," Johnson said. "It's an issue that everyone needs to pay attention to."

He frequently reports what he sees to Scott McQuade, executive director of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

With a relatively short expanse of accessible beach on St. Simons Island to begin with, McQuade says erosion is always a concern.

"You have to be cognizant of the product," McQuade said of the beach as a tourist attraction.

The No. 1 reason tourists visit the area is for the beaches, according to annual surveys by the visitors bureau. If the beaches get smaller, or more difficult to access, visitors may be less inclined to return, McQuade said.

A vanishing shoreline is also a concern on Jekyll Island, with high tides that reach to rocks along stretches of the beach.

A few more significant storms could have a serious negative impact on beaches, at least in the short term, McQuade said. "These storms can eat away at the beach pretty rapidly. But they are the same storms that can bring it back," he said.

Clark Alexander, who studies oceanic geology at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, a University of Georgia program southeast of Savannah, said beaches are always shifting and that cycles of accretion and erosion are constant.

"There is sand that is moving all around the coast," Alexander said.

But as sea levels rise and development along beaches continues, Alexander says some areas will see erosion. "In general, there is an overall trend of erosion," he said.

That is particularly true where barriers have been placed to protect upland property near a beach.

The Johnson Rocks on St. Simons Island inhibit the natural flow of sand and prevent the beach from migrating landward, toward the dunes. Those are the areas where beaches are more likely to be inaccessible over time during high tides.

"You've lost the beach in most places where you are going to lose it," Alexander said.

As time passes, he said areas like East Beach on St. Simons Island, where development is pushed back from the beach and behind the dunes, will continue to have more sand because there is room to absorb the erosion.

That is why Alexander says some beach communities bring in sand to keep recreational areas as large as possible. Although in a completely natural beach area, that is a bad idea, Alexander said. Development along beaches has forced scientists to try to find a balance between the natural oceanic processes and protecting property along the coastline.

He says he would not recommend building structures such as jetties to rebuild a beach and that if absolutely necessary, beach renourishment projects would be a better choice.

While it is not to that point yet for most Glynn County beaches, Alexander says it could get there. If it does, residents and government officials will have to decide what to do about it, he said.

* Reporter Michael Hall writes about public safety, environment and other local topics. Contact him at mhall@thebrunswick, on Facebook or at 265-8320, ext. 320.

Erosion at St. Andrew's beach on Jekyll Island