Erosion Threatens Barrier Islands

Natural and man-made climate change stole 60 percent of Jekyll Island's beaches.

ByABC News via logo
May 24, 2009, 8:35 PM

May 25, 2009 — -- Off the east coast of southern Georgia lies Jekyll Island, whose natural beauty has lured people to its shores for decades. But the sands of this barrier island have been shifting.

On the south side the beach is actually accumulating sand, brought in by the tide. But the shore on the north side of the island is being washed away.

"It was a very beautiful beach," David Egan of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island Park said of the dissolving land.

Egan has lived on Jekyll Island for four decades, during which time he's seen its north shore shrink before his very eyes. He's seen picnic sights from the '60s and '70s drowned in tidal waters.

Part of the massive change is natural and caused by storms and tides, said professor Anthony Martin of Emory University, but much of it also has to do with melting ice caps.

"Sea ice melting, and that's contributing to the amount of water in the oceans," he said. "But also the water's expanding as it's gotten warmer and that expansion has also caused it [sea levels] to go up."

More than 60 percent of Jekyll Island's beach has been lost since the 1800s, according to a study by the Geological Society of America.

Then, Jekyll Island was the winter playground for some of America's richest families. It was a private island getaway for families like the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts and the Pulitzers.

But with such a colorful past, many fear its bright future may be at risk along with many mid-Atlantic coastal communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency warned in a recent report that rising sea levels are submerging low-lying land and eroding beaches.

Fire Island, N.Y., has lost one and a half feet of beach every year for the past five decades, according to one report.

The intergovernmental panel on climate change said the sea level could rise over two feet more each century. With over half of the U.S. population, 153 million people, living in coastal communities, the rising water is cause for concern for many.

"In terms of ocean rise, yes, we do need a plan for that," said Jim Langford, a developer planning to build on Jekyll.