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(As seen from Mt. Mitchill, high waves and strong winds were battering the narrow coastline of the Sandy Hook peninsula for most of Saturday)

ImageThe first weekend of November is on deck, and so is the first major coastal storm of autumn. It arrived off the Jersey Shore early Saturday morning in the guise of a powerful nor’easter, but had its origins as a tropical storm that was once named Hurricane Noel.

Hurricane Noel, the deadliest tropical storm of the year so far, wreaked havoc earlier in the week in the Caribbean region with flooding rains and strong winds that pounded the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba and the Bahamas. Early media reports indicate that 79 people are dead in the Dominican Republic, and close to 65,000 people have been driven from their homes. In Haiti, the storm killed 43 people, with around six thousand homes damaged or destroyed, and 14,000 people living in shelters. Noel could be the worst natural disaster in this part of the world since spring floods in May 2004, which killed thousands of people in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and other poverty-stricken Caribbean nations.

Traveling northward, Noel did not do nearly as much damage compared to the Caribbean. Yet, as all powerful hurricanes turned nor'easter storms do, it caused its own share of mayhem. To people living in eastern Long Island, coastal New England, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, these saltwater sites were hit hard by a still intense and dangerous storm that delivered heavy downpours, coastal flooding, beach erosion, and powerful winds with gusts up to 50 to 80mph depending on how close a location was to the center of the storm. Power outages were widespread and some streets were washed away from clogged drains that were blocked up from recently fallen leaves. Fortunately, this storm was a quick mover and did not tarry long in the north western Atlantic to totally ravage the coastline.

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(Life along the soft sandy shore is constantly in motion moved by the currents, waves, and wind)

While storms of Noel's intensity happen frequently in the Atlantic Ocean during late autumn, winter, and spring, this storm was unusual for this time of year. It was a potentially dangerous nor’easter while occurring when it is still officially hurricane season. Moreover, since the storm was coming from warmer latitudes it had more energy to potentially do more damage. Had the track of the storm brought it closer to the coast, there would have been extensive destruction to our coastal communities. 

Around here, however, in northern Monmouth County the storm was hardly even felt, except as being a nuisance to some people and an “in” day for others. If you live directly along the Jersey Shore than you experienced beach erosion and gusty winds that whipped the surf up along the ocean’s sandy shoreline from tropical storm force winds that extended outward up to 300 miles from the center of the storm.

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(A view of strong high waves battering the sandy shore of the Sandy Hook peninsula with New York City in the background)

People daring enough to visit the Jersey Shore earlier in the day were greeted with winds up to 40mph beating them on their face. They were also treated to a distinctive water show. High waves that had traveled hundreds of miles pounded the shoreline with brawny blasts of turbid water, whitecaps, and spray that covered much of the tidal zone with flotsam, jetsam, and foam. As each wave slammed into shore, it scoured out a foot of sand to undermine the sandy beach and to erode and narrow the famous Jersey Shore. Once more, this is a changed beach.

As the day progressed, severe winds turned into strong breezes and patches of sunlight sparkled over bay waters and the dunes at Sandy Hook. The only major victims I observed from this storm were the ocean beaches. Time and time again, our sandy shoreline becomes badly worn down, windswept, and weather-beaten by powerful winds and waves from impressive ocean storms.

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(During the storm, different water birds, such as Brant, were finding comfort in the shallow, weedy sections of the bay)

While people may want to stop this retreat of our ocean beaches, there is really little we can do.  Cosmetic changes to the shoreline, such as beach replenishment projects, seawalls, and jetties may slow down the natural process, but in the end the sea and the natural system that has been going on for millions of years will take back what it wants, when it wants it. The best we can do is to learn how to adapt and prepare for these changes. Trying to stop beach erosion is like trying to stop the run of our daily tides – it just isn’t going to happen.

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(An adult Ring-billed Gull searching for a snack along the sandy ocean beach within the flotsam and jetsam)

With a month to go before the end of the official 2007 hurricane season, the Bayshore region has dodged yet another bullet and missed another hurricane. Our little coastal zone has once again been left relatively unscathed for another year. Everyone knows that someday a hurricane will come to our region that will do great damage, but it didn’t hit this weekend.

Jersey Shore storms hold a special quality of drama with so many people living so near the coastline. As long as the sea continues to rise and beaches continue erode into the water, barrier beaches and sandy shorelines will continue to be temporary buffers, slowing but not stopping the inevitable coastal erosion process. The beach has an up and down rhythm all its own. We should do all that we can to understand and respect this natural rhythm that is governed by tides, winds, and waves.