LIGHTHOUSES: Canaries in the Coal Mine of Climate Change

East Point Lighthouse in New Jersey
A beloved historical site, the 170-year-old East Point Light on Delaware Bay in Cumberland County, New Jersey, is among the growing list of U.S. lighthouses whose official situation is one of “dire peril.” The rising waters of climate change have eaten away large areas of land that once separated the building from the shoreline and now threaten to permanently engulf it. See the 2021 update about the latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Report, the 2022 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Report, the latest Philadelphia Inquirer report on constant flooding in New Jersey shore towns, the political battles that make is all worse, and growing crisis and shock as insurance companies pull out of shoreline and other areas suffering continuing climate change disasters across the country. In a July 2024 Philadelphia Inquirer article, Rutgers Universty Marine Field Station in Tuckerton, NJ, reported that New Jersey has experienced 8.2 inches of sea level rise over roughly the last 40 years. That’s twice the global average because not only is the ocean rising, but southern New Jersey’s land also is sinking from natural gological forces. So, each inch of rising water is met with a compounding effect of collapsing ground. Like the Tuckerton Station, East Point Lighthouse sits on the coastal edge of land that is being swallowed up by these two unstoppable forces that are being heavily influenced by accelerating climate change.

Much like the canaries that once warned of dangers in coal mines, America’s lighthouses are warning us about the threat of climate change’s rising waters. In the old days, miners carried tiny caged birds into the shafts because the delicate creatures were vulnerable to lower levels of methane and carbon monoxide exposure than humans. The birds’ death throes or tiny curled corpses alerted miners to quickly head for the surface before they, too, succumbed.

In the same way, hundreds of lighthouses that stand along the coastlines of our Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf and Great Lakes shorelines are warning us about the destructive power of rising waters and ferocious storms that are more frequent and extreme than ever before. These buildings and the shorelines they cling to have never been more threatened. (Continued below photos)

Historic East Point Lighthouse
The basement of East Point Light is sometimes pumped out every day. But the land below is so saturated, water bubbles up through the basement floor. Storms push water up to the front steps and are constantly gaining ground. And that’s typical for hundreds of the lighthouses that fringe the nation’s major waterways.
East Point Lighthouse sits on the eroding shore of Delaware Bay
Located at the confluence of the Maurice River and lower Delaware Bay, the lighthouse is surrounded by low-lying forests and wetlands teeming with migrating birds and other wildlife that make it a major regional tourist attraction. It is maintained by the Maurice River Historical Society and Friends of East Point Light.
Within weeks, protective berms are destroyed by wind and waves
Teams of volunteers and local contractors have worked frantically to create berms around the rapidly-shrinking sand penninsula on which East Point sits. But when that wasn’t enough to resist storm waves, giant sandbags were put in place in an effort to reinforce the berms.
Delaware Bay waves move large concrete blocks
When the berms and giant sandbags didn’t stop the erosion of the remaining ribbon of land around the Light, enormous concrete blocks were put in place to shoe them up. But the next storm that roared through Delaware Bay began to move even the concrete blocks.
Hastily piled up soil provides temporary protection to East Point Lighthouse
As do managers at hundreds of other lighthouses that sit on sand-based shorelines being eaten away by the rising waters of climate change, East Point’s keepers often watch as waters systematically remove berms.
The grounds of East Point once stretched out to the now submerged pier and collapsed road.
A visitor at East Point wanders out by the remains of what used to be a roadway that led to the site’s now-destroyed boat launch ramp. Local authorities estimated that moving the lighthouse hundreds of feet back from its present location to save it would cost in the range of $3.5 million.

(Continued from above)
There are currently about 900 lighthouses along America’s waterways threatened by rising waters driven by storms more frequent and ferocious than ever before. Some of the historic structures have already collapsed, been damaged or taken down as the encroaching sea has eaten away their earthen supports and attacked their foundations.

Accelerating erosion
In major engineering projects, and at enormous cost, a few communities have moved their threatened lighthouses back from the sea in efforts to save them. But the battle will never be won as Earth’s glaciers continue to melt and ocean waters continue to rise. For instance, the 367-mile long Texas Gulf coastline, which is studded with 12 lighthouses, is eroding at the rate of more than four feet each year, according to the Texas General Land Office.

The engineering projects required to save threatened lighthouses are enormously expensive. For instance, in 2018, the Governor of New York announced $24 million in federal and state funding for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to essentially rebuild a huge cliff and the surrounding shoreline geostructure to save Historic Montauk Point Lighthouse in Suffolk County.

It took nearly three years of planning and $3 million to move the 400-ton Gay Head Light on Martha’s Vineyard 129 feet away from the collapsing sand cliff on which it was built in 1844. Moving Nantucket’s 500-ton Sankaty Head Lighthouse 405 feet back from the eroding shoreline cost $4 million. Other lighthouses that have been moved include Southeast Light on Block Island and the North Carolina’s 5,000-ton, 200-foot-tall Cape Hatteras Lighthouse that was moved half a mile inland at a cost of $12 million.

This aerial comparison from the Maurice River Historical Society shows the severe erosion of Delaware Bay shoreline around the East Point Lighthouse from 1940 to 2018. Global warming has accelerated the rising of the water and created more extreme storms that batter away at the thin strip of solid ground still remaining between the lighthouse and the bay. There is no nearby higher land to move the structure to, even if there was money available to fund that, which there isn’t.

Enormous costs
The places that have been able to secure millions in federal and state funds to conduct such colossal projects have all been large-scale, well-connected seashore communities whose economies are heavily dependent on tourism. Smaller, less-politically connected communities, like those of the largely rural Delaware Bay counties that surround East Point lighthouse, face much tougher predicaments. And the ability to fund saving any given lighthouse in the future will become ever more difficult as more and more historic landmarks have waves battering at their front doors and foundations.

But this problem is not limited to lighthouses. What their current jeopardy demonstrates is that enormous swaths of shoreline states, cities and towns will soon be grappling with the demands of vast numbers of homeowners for government bailouts as receding shorelines undermine and destroy the value of their expensive vacation homes.

This effect is already visible along both east and west coasts as increasingly ferocious storms of the last ten years — like 2012’s “superstorm” Sandy in the mid-Atlantic states — have wreaked enormous water-driven damage.

Less obvious, but equally important in terms of economic and social disruption, is the manner in which these rising waters and storms of unprecedented ferocity also threaten the dense communities of homes and business that sit on the fringe of sandy shoreline along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ shocking report
In what many see as shocking news, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued a comprehensive report on the continuing climate change-driven increase in storm severity and floods throughout the back bays of the New Jersey Coast. It predicts the ocean and bays at New Jersey’s shoreline will rise more than 1.4 feet over the next 30 years. It lays out plans for a $16 billion system of huge flood barriers, dikes and gates along coastal Monmouth, Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, and Cape May Counties. It also suggests that 18,500 houses and other buildings along this coastal edge be raised as much as 20 feet above their current level. Similarly, the 2022 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Report provides further confirmation of the coming coastal real estate catastrophe.

The predictions of the 2022 Technical Report on the Delaware Estuary and Basin are even worse. That scientific study found that the sea level of the lower Delaware Bay has risen seven inches over the last 30 years. Its latest conservative estimates are that by the year 2100, that level of water will go up to 20 inches — inundating vast parts of the lowlands across Cumberland County, ultimately leaving the East Point Lighthouse a substantial distance offshore and partially submerged, if storms don’t completely tear the structure apart first.

Vast shore line communities are imperiled by climate change and rising waters.
Tightly packed from beach front to bay with million dollar vacation homes, coastal towns like Ocean City, NJ, will be dramatically challenged as waters inexorably rise and inundate these sea-level communities. This sort of dense housing and low streets abut the ocean’s edge from Maine to the Tip of Florida as well as around the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast.