Surfers are witnessing how human intervention and climate change are altering coastlines. One community in North Florida saw its beloved waves disappear almost instantly.
One surfer walked along the rocks exposed by erosion at Anastasia State Park's edge. Credit to Lawren Simmons, The New York Times
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By Michael Adno
April 10, 2023
ST. AUGUSTINE (Fla.) -- Zander Morton was a child who grew up surfing some the most famous waves in the American South.
The two surf spots located inside Anastasia State Park were called Middles and Blowhole by locals. They took the Atlantic's energy, and created consistent, world-class waves that generations in St. Johns County grew up riding in the 1990s -- something rare for Florida. Morton, a surfer, speaks of those waves with reverence that is usually reserved for gods.
They only do this in the past tense. The waves vanished almost instantly at the dawn of the 21st Century.
These are just a few of the many surf breaks that have disappeared. This is an example of how quickly terrain can change or disappear due to a complex set of factors: shifting sand, deepwater canyons and human intervention along beaches in the form of jetties, engineering projects, or piers.
The origin myths that created the waves at the beach were as fascinating as anything in St. Augustine's past. The interplay of storms that created an ever-changing collection of islands, the work of the Army Corps of Engineers and bathymetry are most often credited for creating the two best waves on the East Coast.
Walter Coker, a photojournalist and photographer who has lived in St. Augustine since the 1970s, said that "it was a destination." "There are only a few spots in Florida that can boast this kind of status.
Over the past decades, surfers such as Morton and Coker have seen the changes in North Florida's coastline. They are familiar with the fast-acting effects that erosion, strong storms, and rising sea levels have on their coastlines.
This knowledge, which is unique to surfers in their area, has been invaluable to those who have compiled a record of the past.
Local surfers are a special case in point. Dan Reineman, assistant professor of resource management and environmental science at California State University Channel Islands said that 'no one knows that small patch of coast as well as they do'. He said that the anecdotal evidence from surfers is becoming increasingly valuable data for researchers.
In 2017, Dr. Reineman published a study with his colleagues in which over a thousand surfers analyzed how rising sea levels could affect California's surf spots by 2100. The study found that only a handful of spots could improve and that many areas along California's coast might be able adapt. More than a third of the 105 surf break locations the study examined were considered vulnerable to sea-level rising, which would mean that some waves could disappear entirely.
Dr. Reineman stated, "What I find alarming from the perspective surfing is how coastal communities respond to changing coastal conditions." We choke off sand supplies and plug up watersheds to dam rivers. As sea levels rise, we are changing the ability of the coast to adapt.
A place like Florida where barrier islands have suffered from the effects of unrestricted development, there are few options other than fortifying the shoreline and installing jetties, sea walls or periodic beach replenishment. Based on data from Dr. Reineman, Florida, it is estimated that most popular surfing spots in the state would be flooded by a mere foot of sea level rise.
Morton and Coker wondered if it was the dredging outer sandbars or sea-level rise that has destroyed surf spots ever since Middles and Blowhole vanished. The Army Corps dumped sand from the St. Augustine Inlet along the coast in 2001 to stop homes falling into the Atlantic. Coker stated that 'Those sandbars had disappeared'. "The place has not been the same since."
Al Sandrik has been watching, both as a surfer as well as as the National Weather Service's warning coordination météoologist in Jacksonville, Fla., as dune lines were washed away across St. Johns County since the mid-'80s.
He pointed out the southern portion of the county where an inlet from the Summer Haven River has broken into the Atlantic at least seven more times in the past six years. Residents are left stranded while the county spends millions trying to restore the fragile sandspit.
The East Coast surfers used look forward to hurricane season like skiers do for snow. They knew that the best waves of the season were coming their way as far-off storms formed off Cape Verde. There was little chance of hurricane winds and the damage they can cause. A storm in the Atlantic would often bring St. Augustine's Middles and Blowhole to life when there was a swell.
However, the last ten years have seen local surfers fear the hurricane season.
They recall the names of hurricanes in St. Augustine from their memories. Donna was the name of the hurricane in 1960. It was Floyd in 1999. However, the threat of a direct impact seemed remote at best. Morton, who was born there, said that Augustine never floods. "That was not something we considered.
Just eleven months after Matthew's storm, Hurricane Irma inundated areas that were previously dry. Then, in September 2022 residents added Hurricane Ian as a storm to their list. It ravaged the entire state.
The area that once attracted thousands of surfers to Blowhole and Middles was, in some ways, returning to its former self after hurricane season had ended. The beach grew with the dunes. While other parts of the county were rapidly eroding, well-formed sandbars began to form.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection declared just half of St. Johns County's coastline as critically endangered in June 2022. Local, state, and federal agencies have spent over $125 million since 2001 on projects to reduce erosion. These included the rehabilitation of St. Augustine Beach, and efforts to restore the Summer Haven River.
The constant pull and push between the ocean's edge and its residents has created as many waves and buried as it has made. The northern end of St. Johns County's beach renourishment temporarily drowns waves such as Vilano just north of St. Augustine Inlet. Meanwhile, dredging to the south creates a remarkable point break that lasts for weeks or even years, depending on the time of year. It's an ongoing dance between wind and tides, which is temporarily controlled by structures such as jetties or replenishment but is always orchestrated by the Atlantic.
Dr. Reineman stated that by giving coasts the ability of natural adaptation, for sandbars form and move naturally, we can help to ensure that natural surf breaks continue to exist.
Coker recalled the excitement he felt when forecasters named hurricanes in the Atlantic. Coker could see waves rushing towards the shore when he closed his eyes. The opening of hurricane season was near, and the afternoon rains and humidity returned by the first of June.
After his home was flooded by Matthew and Irma, his excitement quickly turned to fear as the names were revealed. He didn't care if there was a good surf window. He didn't want the pain of seeing his home destroyed again.