Beaches serve as a natural buffer between the ocean and inland communities, ecosystems, and natural resources. However, these dynamic environments move and change in response to winds, waves, and currents. During extreme storms, changes to beaches can be great, and the results are sometimes catastrophic. Lives may be lost, communities destroyed, and millions of dollars spent on rebuilding.
During storms, large waves may erode beaches, and high storm surge may shift the erosive force of the waves higher on the beach. In some cases, the combined effects of waves and surge may cause overwash (when waves and surge overtop the dune, transporting sediment inland) or flooding. Buildings and infrastructure on or near a dune can be undermined during wave attack and subsequent erosion. A number of strong northeast storms—storms with winds tending to blow from the northeast direction—referred to as nor’easters, have hit the mid- and northeast Atlantic coast of the United States in recent years (February 2013 and January 2015). Waves from these storms caused severe erosion, flooding, and undermining of roads in many areas along the northeast Atlantic coast.
Waves overtopping a dune can transport water and sand inland, covering roads and blocking evacuation routes or impeding emergency relief. If storm surge inundates barrier island dunes, currents flowing across the island can create a breach, or a new inlet, completely severing evacuation routes.
Extreme coastal changes caused by hurricanes or nor’easters may increase the vulnerability of communities both during a storm and to future storms. For example, when sand dunes are substantially eroded, inland structures are exposed to storm surge and waves. On barrier islands, absent or low dunes allow water to flow inland across the island.