LIGHTHOUSES: Canaries in the Coal Mine of 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)

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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.

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.

Economic and social disruption
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.

Consider this. The International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS) is an international organization of the world’s largest insurance companies that studies the risk of climate-related damage claims. In a July, 2018 landmark report, IAIS warned its members of the latest scientific data on sea level rise:

“Sea level rise projections range from 7.87 inches to 6.5 feet by 2100. Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.3% per decade, with the last 10 years consecutively representing the lowest 10 average September ice extents since 1979. Although only 2% of the world’s land lies at or below 10 meters of elevation, these areas contain 10% of the world’s human population — meaning that over 630 million people are directly threatened by sea level rise. The impacts are already being felt: roughly 7 inches of sea-level rise since the 1950s increased Superstorm Sandy’s ground-up surge losses by 30% in New York alone, contributing to tens of billions of US dollars in damage.”