Over the course of his 56-year career in coastal geology, Orrin Pilkey has butted heads with real-estate developers and property owners in just about every beach town east of the Mississippi.

His call for humans to retreat from the beach and allow any structure that can’t be moved back to fall into the sea has been called radical and reproachable in more letters to the editor than he can count. 

But love him or loathe him, there’s no denying the impact Pilkey, James B. Duke Emeritus Professor of Geology, has had. 

The North Carolina Coastal Federation calls him “the man who saved our beaches.” The New York Times calls him “the dean of American coastal geology.” His peers have awarded him nearly every honor for public service in his field, and his former students, many of whom are now influential voices in coastal science themselves, speak of him with reverence.

Pilkey, who turned 85 this year, takes it all with a grain of sea salt.

“Some people like what I have to say and some people don’t, but that’s not why I do it,” he said of his years spent at the eye of the storm in the debates over coastal development and climate change.

“Science needs a voice. We need to share what we know, and that’s what I try to do,” he said. “These beaches don’t belong to the people who have chosen to build structures there. They belong to our children and grandchildren. What a tragedy it would be if we let them be destroyed because we didn’t speak up and share the truth.”

jumping into the fire

Born in New York City in 1934, Pilkey spent most of his childhood in Richland, Wash., where his father worked as a civil engineer at the Hanford plutonium plant. Bitten at an early age by a love for nature, he hunted, fished and hiked whenever possible.

At 16, he got a summer job with the U.S. Forest Service as one of its youngest firefighters and smoke jumpers, sometimes parachuting solo into remote locations across the Northwest to fight fires.

After an uninspired undergraduate career at Washington State University and a half-hearted stint in the Army, Pilkey decided to pursue a master’s degree in geology at the University of Montana. 

“After my experience in the Army – where the most important thing I learned was how to behave when someone orders you to do something irrational – I was looking for a sense of purpose. I hated the thought of being stuck in the classroom but was fascinated by geology, especially the geology of the marine environment. So I figured for my thesis, I’d drive from Washington state to Baja California, collecting sand dollars and doing chemical analyses on them to see if there was a difference between the chemistry of those from warm waters and those from cold waters,” he said. “It turns out it was pointless because the chemistry of sand dollars changes too quickly after they are fossilized for them to serve as an indicator. But I learned from my failure.”

When it came time to do his doctoral dissertation at Florida State University, he revisited the same basic question but used clam shells instead as a tool for measuring changes in ocean temperatures in the Atlantic over recent centuries.

“This was successful,” Pilkey said.

Following graduation in 1962, he joined the faculty at the University of Georgia’s Marine Institute on Sapelo Island, where he spent three years studying beach and continental shelf sediments from a small research vessel. 

He came to Duke in 1965, lured by the prospect of conducting research in deeper waters aboard Duke’s then-new 117-foot research vessel, the Eastward.

With a bigger ship at his disposal, Pilkey delved into the geology of abyssal plains – vast stretches of mostly flat seafloor found near continental and island margins at depths between 10,000 and 20,000 feet. Over time, he carved out a niche for himself as an expert on turbidity currents, powerful underwater avalanches that hurtle down continental slopes and rises at speeds near 40 miles per hour, carrying shells, sand and rocks from shallower waters with them. In a study of the Hatteras Abyssal Plain, his lab became the first to successfully map the areal extent of sediment deposited along hundreds of miles of seafloor by one such current. He was at the top of his field. All told, his group conducted 35 research cruises to 13 abyssal plains in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean.

But then, in 1969, an event at the surface of the sea changed everything.

Hurricane Camille, one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. coast, roared into Waveland, Miss., ripping apart the house three blocks from the beach where his parents then lived, along with nearly every other structure in sight.

It was a light-bulb moment for Pilkey.

“Visiting my parents to help them recover, I was stunned by the power of the sea and how ill prepared we were for dealing with it,” he said.

He continued to study deep-sea geology, but by 1975 papers on beach and barrier island geology began appearing in his CV, as well. 

That same year, he and his father, a trained engineer, published an unassuming little book, How to Live with an Island, that presented barrier islands as dynamic, living things and explained in scientifically accurate but easily understood terms the negative impacts overdevelopment, beach nourishment and the use of seawalls can have on them. (Beach nourishment describes when new sand, often dredged from nearby waters, is dumped onto an eroding beach to replace the sand it has lost.)

The book, the first of nearly 40 Pilkey has authored or co-authored over his career to explain coastal science to mainstream audiences, triggered a tidal wave of interest.

“My phone didn’t stop ringing. TV shows wanted me as a guest. Magazines and newspapers wanted to interview me. Civic groups invited me to give talks. That never happened with any of my papers on turbidity currents,” he said.

Not all the response was positive. Some academics felt the book veered into the realm of advocacy and relied too heavily on findings not yet vetted through peer review. Coastal developers denounced it as anti-growth nonsense. Conservative pundits cited it as an example of the “radical environmental science” increasingly coming out of elite universities.

Pilkey was delighted. 

Good, bad or indifferent, the reactions shored up his conviction that there was an urgent need to let people know about the dire consequences that could occur if we didn’t start treating beaches, barrier islands and the ocean with more respect.

He had found his purpose.

Orrin Pilkey

digging in

Buoyed by the interest in his book, Pilkey traded his research vessel for a 16-foot beach skiff. He accelerated his work on coastal geology and began publishing a rapid-fire stream of books, peer-reviewed papers and abstracts that undercut the widely held assumption that seawalls and beach nourishment were beneficial.

He proved that nourished beaches last three years on average along the mid-Atlantic coast (and a bit longer in Florida, where waves are smaller), not the 10 years the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claimed. 

He proved that seawalls and other hard-structure wave barriers actually hasten the destruction of the beach they’re built to protect.

And in a book titled Useless Arithmetic, authored with his daughter, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, he proved that the mathematical models used by many engineers and consultants to predict the behavior of natural processes at the beach were...well, useless.

Pilkey’s speedy pace of publication belied the high quality of science and scholarship he was producing, said former doctoral student Rob Thieler, now the director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal and Marine Science Center at Woods Hole, Mass.

“Orrin’s ability to drive a research agenda is really amazing. Although it is sometimes lost among his many op-eds about beach nourishment and seawalls, his peer-reviewed published work in that arena was truly seminal,” Thieler said.

“The first comprehensive reviews of the U.S. beach nourishment experience came out of the Program for the Study of Developed Shoreline, which Orrin founded at Duke in 1986,” Thieler noted. “The scientific and engineering community has subsequently spent decades conducting research on nourishment project durability, the fate of sediment, and the benefits and costs of nourishment as a coastal hazard mitigation approach. That work would never have happened without Orrin’s keen insight into these issues.”

Pilkey’s willingness to share his expertise widely – even if this sometimes meant forgoing the conventional (and much slower) process of peer review – proved to be remarkably effective in informing policy debates.

His writings and scientific testimony are credited with persuading the North Carolina General Assembly to pass legislation in 1985 outlawing the use of most seawalls on the state’s coast. Other states, including Maine, South Carolina and Massachusetts, subsequently also passed laws limiting the use of seawalls and other hard-structured barriers, largely as a result of Pilkey’s research and advocacy.

In the late 1980s, he played a major role in another policy offensive – this time to save North Carolina’s iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Analysis by Pilkey and other geologists showed that the 198-foot brick structure, which dates to 1870, was in danger of falling into the ocean, a victim of increased erosion and rising seas. With only about 15 feet of beach remaining between it and the crashing waves, Pilkey and his colleagues argued the only scientifically sound solution was to move it to a new location 1500 feet back from the shore.

“Oh boy! That really stirred up a hornet’s nest among business owners and elected officials who thought moving the lighthouse would kill tourism. They found one ‘expert’ who said a structure that big couldn’t be moved; another testified the bricks would fall off during the move; and still another ‘expert’ who testified that the erosion wasn’t that bad and could easily be handled,” Pilkey said.

Appalled by this resistance to the move, Pilkey joined forces with David Bush, a doctoral student of his at the time and now a geology professor at the University of West Georgia, and David Fischetti, a structural engineer from Cary, N.C., to urge the National Park Service, which manages the lighthouse, to request an independent study by experts at the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. Pilkey, Bush and Fischetti felt reasonably sure the academies would endorse relocation.

They were right. The lighthouse was moved without incident in 1999 and the local tourism industry boomed as large crowds began coming to see the lighthouse in its new location.

This July, the Park Service celebrated the 20th anniversary of the move and Pilkey was among the VIPs invited to attend.

“It still feels like a great victory,” he said with a sly smile, “not only because we saved a historic lighthouse and brought sound science to the fore in a public debate, but because it emphasized for doubters that if we can move a nearly 200-foot, 5,000-ton lighthouse back from the shore, we can certainly move beach cottages back, too.”

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

retreat, not defeat

At an age when most scientists and advocates have retired from the public arena, Pilkey is still using the weapons in his arsenal to fight a threat he considers among the gravest of our time.

“It’s time to leave the beach, at least in terms of having permanent structures and communities there. The seas are rising. Storms are intensifying. We need to begin an orderly retreat while we still have time,” he said. 

This means being willing to sacrifice any structure that can’t be moved to higher ground on the mainland, and prohibiting any new beachfront development, he said. If a house is significantly damaged in a storm, we have to stop letting the owner rebuild it with federal subsidies or guarantees of low insurance rates. And we must re-nourish eroding beaches sparingly, if at all.

“No one likes to talk about retreat because they think it signals defeat,” Pilkey said. “But in this case, it’s the opposite. It means victory and survival.”