New Book “The Last Beach” Highlights Threats to Beaches

November 10, 2014

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084,

By Kati Moore (MEM ’16)
Nicholas School Communications Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – In a new book, authors Orrin H. Pilkey of Duke University and J. Andrew G. Cooper of the University of Ulster argue that immediate action must be taken to save the world’s beaches from the negative impacts of development, mining, and pollution.

The book, “The Last Beach,” discusses the dynamic nature of beaches and how current practices such as shoreline stabilization and beach nourishment work against beaches’ natural processes.

“The bottom line is that in fifty years, and certainly in one hundred years, we will have no beaches left on developed shorelines in the developed world,” said Pilkey, who will read from the book tonight (Nov. 11) at 7 p.m. at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.

Myriad problems face beaches around the world, Pilkey and Cooper argue. Most of these problems stem from people trying to engineer beaches to fit human ideals, instead of moving with the beaches’ inevitable changes.

Stabilizing shorelines by building seawalls is one significant problem. Seawalls are often built to protect beachfront buildings, but usually do more harm than good, Pilkey said. In Cape May, New Jersey, the historically healthy beach was severely eroded following the construction of a seawall, despite multiple replenishment efforts.

Another common and harmful practice is beach replenishment, in which offshore sand is mined and put on the beach. This can change wave patterns and damages offshore ecosystems. Commercial fishermen in Nantucket, Mass., have opposed beach replenishment efforts due to the potential negative effects on fish populations.

Pollution is a significant problem on beaches, both in the water and the sand. Common sources of pollution are raw sewage and wastewater runoff, which often contain harmful bacteria. Beach pollution is a problem with personal significance for Pilkey, whose grandson contracted methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection from a cut on his foot after surfing on Westport Beach in Washington.

Pilkey and Cooper’s recommendations for beach-goers are do not walk barefoot on the beach, do not lie or sit directly on the sand, do not swim after a heavy rain, and “never, ever get buried in sand.”In order to preserve beaches for future generations, Pilkey and Cooper offer four rules: Do not build seawalls. Do not build beachfront high-rises. Do not mine sand. Value the beach ecosystem.

The key to successfully preserving beaches, Pilkey said, is to change with the beaches. “We need to bend with nature. That’s not a new idea, but in so many ways, we don’t bend with nature,” he said.

One example of beaches being more sustainably managed, Pilkey said, is the efforts of the United Kingdom’s National Trust, which designs structures and paths that are meant to be temporary or are able to be moved, so that human activities can shift with the changing coastline.  

Despite a few promising initiatives such as the National Trust’s efforts, Pilkey and Cooper predict a bleak future for beaches. “You can have buildings, and you can have beaches, but you can’t have both,” Pilkey said.  

Pilkey is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and founder and director emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, now at Western Carolina University. He is the author or co-author of 45 books and more than 250 articles.
Cooper is professor of coastal studies in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Ulster.

“The Last Beach” is published by Duke University Press.  For more information visit