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Sustainable Coastal Protection: The Balance Between Protecting Coastline Structures and Conserving the Environment

In the United States, more than half of the population lives within 50 miles of the coastline. As average annual temperatures and sea level continue to rise, the coastline will likely experience stronger hurricanes and winds leading to higher storm surge and bigger waves. Inhabitants of these coastlines will be forced to find more effective and sustainable ways of coping with the threatening impacts of storm surge and waves or abandon some areas altogether.

“Storm surge and waves often lead to significant shoreline erosion and seawall damage,” says Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAE). “Mitigating these effects is of utmost importance for coastal communities, especially as these effects are projected to worsen with climate change.”

Apart from beach and dune re-nourishment most traditional strategies for coastal protection involve shoreline hardening with structures, such as seawalls, riprap and groins. Although these structures may often provide the required level of protection, they significantly reduce habitat value. “It is imperative to develop alternatives to the traditional revetment systems,” says Rhode-Barbarigos. “With an appropriately engineered shoreline protection system, we can improve the efficiency of revetment systems while also creating an environment for marine life to thrive.”

Rhode-Barbarigos is currently working with Antonio Nanni, professor and chair of CAE, and Brian Haus, professor and chair of the Department of Ocean Sciences in the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and in collaboration with the Florida Department of Transportation, to provide a shoreline protection system that effectively dissipates the impact of waves while providing a hospitable environment for native species.

Their research project, funded by the National Academy of Sciences, focuses on investigating and developing an effective, yet environmentally friendly, modular revetment system. The system is composed of perforated tube elements made of low alkalinity cement, seawater concrete and non-corrosive reinforcement. The elements can be installed horizontally or vertically, stacked in an interlocking ‘honeycomb’ series that allows the system to adapt for various applications and topography while offering high structural complexity and enhancing its biocompatibility.

The team will be using the Surge Structure Atmosphere Interaction (SUSTAIN) Facility, a laboratory that allows researchers to generate wind-wave hurricane conditions with the flip of a switch, to appropriately design the system by improving their knowledge on the wave-breaking loads and evaluating the system’s performance.

“We have to find a balance between being economical yet effective, while also protecting the environment,” says Rhode-Barbarigos, “The proposed revetment system brings us one step closer to a sustainable tomorrow.”

The project is officially titled, “SEAHIVE – Sustainable Estuarine & Marine Revetment.”

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