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It’s Not Nice to F**k With Mother Nature! (And Probably Won’t Work Anyway)

As a long time resident of Fort Lauderdale, I’ve always thought that building on the barrier island, that is to say, Fort Lauderdale beach itself, was a really stupid thing to do. Nevermind that these buildings nakedly face the full force of a hurricane or tidal wave. As a systems engineer, my intuition was that structures on the island would disturb the natural flow of tide and sand that built the island. In a complex system like the ocean, there’s no way to know the “butterfly effect” of disturbing this process.1

Noted geologist, Orrin Pilkey, says that building on the shifting sands of barrier islands is a form of societal madness. These structures, Pilkey believes, are the primary insult to natural beach processes. Not everyone agrees with him, but everyone (scientists) agrees that human actions are hurting the situation in one way or another. Cutting channels for cruise ships and building jetties to protect those channels are probably the worst offenders.

Hitchhiking on the remains of Baltimore Rd on Assateague Island
Hitchhiking on the remains of Baltimore Blvd on Assateague Island

Assateague Island, just off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, is also a barrier island. In 1950, a 15 mile section of the Maryland side of Assateague was platted for development, and a paved road, Baltimore Boulevard, was constructed to traverse the new development. A major storm in 1962 destroyed or covered most of Baltimore Boulevard, and many of the structures on the island were destroyed. It motivated politicians (who usually sell out to private money) to create the Assateague National Seashore. Hurray for them for supporting a measure that makes sense: Preserving a barrier island ecosystem for its natural inhabitants and sand flow, and for visitors to enjoy.

Assateague is famous for it’s wild ponies. The ponies inhabit the salt marshes and pine forests of the island. Legend says that the ponies are from a shipwrecked Spanish Galleon, La Galga. It was a military ship guarding a fleet of Spanish trade ships on their way from Havana, Cuba in 1750. They ran into a hurricane and were taken off course, up the Gulf stream. La Galga ran aground on the barrier island. The Spanish war horses escaped and became, over the years, these wild ponies with large bellies from their salt diet.

Assateague2013_0119Deena and I decided to spend a few days there on our way south. We originally had a prime beach campsite but learned that the forecast was for freezing temperatures and 30-40 mile per hour winds. Wisely, or perhaps I should say “carefully”2, we moved our tent to a protected area behind a pine stand. All night, we could hear the wind howl but our tent barely rippled.

The island is quite interesting with very distinctly different ecosystems: salt marshes, white sand beach and pine forest. We didn’t see many ponies, but the deer were not shy. The park has some lovely trails that highlight the geographic features of the island. The Assateague photo album is here.

Wouldn’t it be nice if all the barrier islands were national parks?Assateague2013_0088


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