Castles Made of Sand

As sea levels rise, coastal homeowners' efforts to save their properties are putting their neighbors at risk

Leo Zarosinski

In 2008 I passed the test administered by the Board of Geologist Examiners and became a registered geologist in the State of Oregon. It was the end of the pre-recession building boom, but the Oregon Coast was still exploding with development. Tillamook County, directly west of Portland, was benefiting from the frenzy of wealthy investors rushing to develop the county as an urban escape. The county had strict regulations regarding hazard assessment and mitigation for new construction, requiring a site visit and summary report stamped by both a registered engineer and a registered geologist. Before my professional stamp had even arrived, architects and engineers with projects on the coast scrambled to fill my winter schedule. Within months I was involved in the coastal hazards business to the tune of ten sites a week. It was during this time that I became responsible for the riprapping of Rockaway Beach—perhaps not wholly, but significantly. This is the story of just one of those properties.

That spring, I was sent on short notice to a residential property at the south end of Rockaway Beach—to the casual observer, a typical blink-and-you-miss-it Oregon Coast town, little more than a cluster of run-down shops, midcentury motels, and hidden houses along Highway 101. In geological terms, Rockaway Beach is an active dune-backed beach, meaning that despite its stable appearance, the underlying sands are shifting thanks to development. 

On the Oregon Coast, resistant headlands tend to isolate beaches, leaving each enclosed area with only so much sand to go around. In a typical year the state’s beaches are eroded by winter storms and then rebuilt during the summer months as wave action decreases. The arrival of new sand is almost always welcomed in coastal areas, but erosion due to the action of wind and water can prove catastrophic. It is common for active dune-backed beaches to change by tens or even hundreds of feet in response to single storm events.

The property I was sent to was in a quiet neighborhood, a mishmash of tiny rentals, modest year-round residences, and, to the west, larger, two-story vacation houses that block the view. The house was a flat-topped A-frame painted the same gray color as the ocean on a winter day. Like its neighbors, it was built on sand with shallow concrete footings, constructed before zoning and building codes took long-term erosion or outsize storm events into account, long before we even knew about global warming.  

At the door, an older woman with a quiet demeanor and a frightened face greeted me, both hands clasped around a cup of coffee. From her porch, she told me that she and her husband had bought the house years before as a vacation home but had recently retired and taken up permanent residence there. For all that time, she said, it had been a quarter-mile walk through shore pines, manzanitas, and grasses to reach the shore. That winter, though, the ocean had come knocking, and waves were breaking in their backyard. Now, she said, her hands shaking nervously around her coffee, they were stuck with a piece of land that was slowly being eaten by the sea.

To underscore the point, she took me to the back of the house, where they had placed wooden stakes in twenty-foot increments from the back door to what she called “the drop-off.” They’d put them in, she said, less than a month before, when the last stake read 200 feet, but on that day the farthest remaining stake sat only 160 feet from the house. She warned me to be careful as I approached the last stake, as the transition from dune to beach was abrupt and hard to see: a swag of green-brown dune grass curling over the ledge obscured a vertical drop of 15 feet to the surface of the beach. Peeking over the edge, I watched as the water from the incoming tide churned directly beneath my feet.

Before the effects of climate change became apparent, local high-water lines were largely controlled by a somewhat predictable combination of wave run-up, winds, storm surges, and tides. But these are temporary, cyclical variations in water level. Global sea-level rise—the semipermanent waxing of the ocean in response to an increase in the total volume of water in the Earth’s interconnected ocean basins—is neither temporary nor cyclical. For coastal communities around the world, staying above the waterline is becoming harder and harder.

For the past ten thousand years, since the last ice age, global temperatures have been increasing. Above-freezing temperatures have been recorded at the North Pole three times in recent years, beginning in 2011; in 2018 arctic temperatures reached more than 27 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the winter average for nine days in a row. Two responses to this warming—the melting of ice and the expansion of water—have formed a positive feedback loop. As rising temperatures melt ice from the arctic and mountain glaciers, the increased volume of water traps even more heat, while the ice loss itself causes a decrease in reflected radiation—all resulting in more water, more warming, more volume, and higher seas. Since 1870, mean sea level—measured retroactively using core samples of arctic ice, tide gauges, and remote sensing data from satellites—has risen by two hundred millimeters, a rate of several millimeters a year, and recent data suggest that this rate is increasing dramatically.

The models are not encouraging. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes that global sea level will increase by ten to thirty inches by 2100, affecting hundreds of millions of people living in areas prone to inundation and other related consequences. Worst-case scenarios, in which the Greenland ice sheet melts entirely (a scenario that seems more and more likely), estimate a sea-level rise in that time of more than thirty-five feet, enough to drown all of London. The World Bank anticipates that by 2050, costs associated with sea level–driven flooding will soar to more than $50 billion annually.

The impacts of global warming on ocean waters had already begun to be seen along the Oregon Coast by 2008. In the early 2000s the Rockaway dune began to be eaten in large chunks by a series of high-intensity storms. In 2007 that process was accelerated by a series of three storms between December 1 and December 4, which would come to be called the Great Coastal Gale.

The storms were impressive, even for the Oregon Coast. Wind speeds reached over 104 miles per hour for a period of more than thirty hours; more than a foot of rain drenched the region. Thousands of trees were felled or damaged, including a seven-hundred-year-old Sitka spruce, which at the time was considered the oldest in the world. Waves of forty to fifty feet were recorded. Direct losses from the storm in infrastructure, housing, and timber alone topped $300 million for the entire region, and indirect losses were anticipated to be more than five times that. In Rockaway Beach, the sea came in and didn’t go back out.

More than a year after the Great Coastal Gale, the ocean was still foisting itself upon the land in Rockaway Beach, each high tide encroaching farther than the last. It was an inexorable process, but architects, engineers, homeowners, and developers still believed that the ramifications could be avoided or curtailed. Every coastal community has a long history of construction related to the taming of the sea. Often, as was the case with Rockaway Beach, it begins with jetties.

In the late 1800s, just decades after the arrival of the first settlers, Rockaway Beach was one of a set of short, isolated stretches of sand accessible only at low tide, collectively known as the Garibaldi beaches. Even in those early days, savvy developers knew that if they were made accessible, the broad, sandy beaches—rare on Oregon’s rocky coastline—would be a tourist gold mine. They soon convinced investors and local agencies to construct a series of jetties that would, in theory, stabilize the beaches while allowing for road access. It worked. The jetties, paired with a rail line from Portland and a seaside resort in Rockaway, made the Garibaldi beaches a destination. By 1911 Rockaway was drawing wealthy Portlanders in droves. In the summer, housewives and children would stay for weeks at a time, joined on the weekends by weary businessmen transported by commuter “Daddy Trains.”  

But the boom didn’t last, and neither did the beach stabilization afforded by the jetties. Over time, they had begun to function as resistant headlands, concentrating wave energy between them. The Garibaldi beaches began to erode. By 1960, the entirety of Bayocean, just north of Rockaway, had fallen into the sea. In 2008 the population of Rockaway was hovering just above a thousand, and even the jetties were beginning to wash away. Something, people said, needed to be done.  

Homeowners were, and are, on their own. In Oregon, the consequence of the ocean taking your grassy dune is the state taking your land. Since 1967, when the Oregon Beach Bill was passed, all land along the coast from the low-tide mark inland to sixteen vertical feet in elevation above it, and public easements from that point to the vegetation line, have been publicly owned. The Beach Bill was a landmark piece of legislation, unique in its time, when most beaches in the United States were held as private property.

The bill was nearly a hundred years in the making. Between 1874 and 1911 a substantive number of difficult-to-develop tidelands, including portions of what are now Seaside, Newport, and Rockaway, were sold by the state to private landowners. By 1911, the land transfers inspired Oswald West to run for governor—his platform was the creation of public beaches. These beaches would also serve as a state highway, thereby providing much-needed infrastructure free of cost to a state desperately in need of through roads. West won, and in 1913 Oregon’s beaches became a highway. Tourists descended; pictures from the period show beaches crowded with revelers, Model T’s, and even the odd small airplane. The success of the highway spurred the state’s parks and recreation department to purchase more land along the coast to build state parks, which they did, vigorously. Today there is a state park approximately every ten miles along the coast, from Oregon’s southern border to the state of Washington.

When Highway 101 was completed in 1936, the beach highway was no longer needed, so in 1947, the transportation department declared the beaches recreation areas. However, none of these efforts stopped privatization. In 1966 nearly half the coastline was still in private hands despite the state’s best efforts. The solution was the Beach Bill, which, following precedent set by Texas state law, worked on the premise that Oregonians had always believed the beaches to be public, and in fact had used them as such with state oversight, and that therefore they were, in fact, already within the public domain. The Beach Bill, then, would simply honor and codify that belief. 

At the time of the bill’s implementation, erosion and the subsequent loss of private land to the state via forces beyond anyone’s control were not an issue. After the Great Coastal Gale of 2007, however, all of that changed. When it became clear that beaches were changing and high-water marks were moving inland as a result of large storm events, property owners looked to the government for aid, only to discover that the state had no vested interest in preserving private property lines. If the sands were to be stabilized, homeowners would be forced to bear the burden of the cost, even as their land was being converted to beach and turned over to the state. They would also be forced to pay permits and repair costs for roads, access points, and easements that, they argued, were already in the state’s possession.

The cheapest and fastest solution was to harden the shoreline, which refers to the practice of laying riprap, large piles of resistant rock, against the ocean-facing slope of a dune. It’s a hugely expensive proposition involving geologists, engineers, heavy equipment, and specialized materials. But the real problem with riprap is that once one property owner lays rock, everyone has to. Isolated, site-specific riprap, such as a jetty, forms a small-scale headland, ultimately increasing overall beach erosion in those areas that remain unengineered—and passing the buck, one might say, to one’s neighbors. But the storms kept coming, and the dune kept failing, and someone, finally, decided to lay down rock. It was in this way, eventually, that all of Rockaway was slowly riprapped.

The property I inspected in 2008 was no different than any other in Rockaway, but something about the way the owner’s hands shook around her coffee affected me. By that time I was hardened, familiar with local backhoe operators and quarry managers as property owners scrambled for purchase on the dune. What distinguished that particular property from the others was the magnitude and startling pace of the erosion, and the obvious role played by a nearby RV park that boasted an ocean-side promenade made of concrete over riprap. Whatever benefits the promenade was providing to the park, it was also channeling the water toward my client’s property. The wave action had carved out a sharp dogleg that cut inland through the dune more than twenty feet beyond the eastern edge of the façade. It left a wall of exposed, loose sand that threatened to fail, undermining the park and the adjoining properties. 

The beach was also in bad shape. To the west, pilings driven perhaps decades earlier now stuck awkwardly out of the sand, tipping to the sides more than twenty feet above the new ground surface. The massive drift logs that had sat on the beach during my first visit were gone, evidence of the force and depth of the water at high tide. Still, my clients, just two lots to the north of the RV park, had been unable to reach a consensus with their neighbors, and the farthest stake from their property now read just forty feet. I would return to lay riprap, but it would not extend to meet the RV park’s promenade, leaving the adjoining houses far more vulnerable to erosion. It was a “save yourself” situation.

Riprapping is not generally a precision business, though the process is fairly simple, especially in emergency situations, which this was. The goal is to get rock down against the sandbank. This consisted of tons of boulders, each measuring from two to four feet in diameter, being delivered by dump truck to the site, where they would be unceremoniously chucked over the edge to be sorted and individually placed by a track-hoe operator. For stability, each rock would need to be keyed into place using three points of contact with the surrounding rocks. It was a messy, expensive, and excruciatingly slow process that meant risking further collapse by clearing vegetation and maneuvering heavy equipment across the already unstable site.

Every time the loaded truck rolled across my client’s property, I imagined the entire remaining dune failing under its weight. At low tide, we’d maneuver the Caterpillar onto the beach from an access point several hundred yards to the north, where the dune was little more than a sinuous lump. I watched the slow progress of the Cat operator, lifting boulders with a pincher-like bucket as if he were fishing for a teddy bear in an arcade lucky dip. I kept one eye always on the ocean, constantly evaluating the Cat’s progress against that of the tide, weighing safety against the cost of mobilizing for another day. When the water came in, I knew it would be many feet deep and churning, and it would happen all at once. The Cat tore deep fissures through the sand, making such a mess that it was easy to wonder if it might not be better just to let the structure go, but each day after we left, the ocean would rise, scouring and leveling the beach, erasing any evidence of our tracks in its sands.

Meanwhile, the homeowner was searching for meaning. On my final visit, she asked me why a thing like this happens. Everything I knew about global warming, sand budgets, grain-to-grain interactions, and building code rushed through my mind. Putting science aside, I told her, “Because it can.” The ocean is far bigger than us, I said, and it acts on time scales much longer than human life-spans or even all of human history. This shift, catastrophic to her, was imperceptible to the ocean. It was simply exercising one of its many options in response to changes in climate, season, and the shoreline. All that water has to go somewhere—an unsatisfying answer at best.

My last photographs of that property show the tide coming in, breaking against the riprap, the over-spray hitting the grassy ledge. It has been easy, in the years since, to imagine a full-moon tide or a small storm surge overtopping those temporary measures, and I have often wondered how much sand was lost in the process of removing my work to lay down engineered fabric, or if this was ever even done. Recent aerial images of Rockaway Beach show riprap running continuously from the RV park to the north, along that property and several of its neighbors. The A-frame, for now, still stands. 

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