Posted by: coastlinesproject | July 19, 2011

The Ash Wednesday Storm 1962

The Ash Wednesday Storm
New Jersey
March 5-8th, 1962

Anyone interested in the history of our coasts should spend some time looking down on New Jersey, preferably from a very high altitude. I had this opportunity on a flight up the East Coast. It was on one of those crystal clear cobalt blue day when the beaches stand out in stark contrast to the dark green waters of the Atlantic. I could see all of New Jersey’s oceanfront cities as well as the latticework of rusting groins, bulkheads and seawalls built to prevent those cities from washing away with the ocean.
Cape May stuck out below us like a sore thumb throbbing above Delaware Bay. Cape May had been our nation’s first coastal resort established in 1692. ( )However, things picked up considerably after the railroads started bringing tourists to Cape May’s famous beaches in 1850. Soon Presidents, robber barons and movie stars were frolicking on her wide beaches, and John Phillip Sousa was giving concerts on summer evenings. But today Cape May’s famous beach is gone thanks to a massive seawall built to prevent erosion, and the city has lapsed into a quiet senescence.
Next, the streets of Atlantic City stood out below me. There were Broadway, and Park Place, Ventnor and St Charles. The inventor of Monopoly expropriated the names of Atlantic City for his popular boardgame that celebrates the irrational exuberance of a runaway real estate bubble. I could just see the Reading and Pennsylvania railways. In 1856 they had transformed this desolate barrier beach into the hottest real estate market in the world. I could almost see Donald Trump entering his opulent Taj Mahal casino. Today Atlantic City’s famous beach is also gone and the state has pledged to pay $5 billion dollars over 50 years to renourish its sand; not a bad way for the Donald to protect his assets, but at a pretty high cost to you and me.
Finally there is Ocean City, with the highest annual coastal engineering budget in the nation. So, if you want to defeat a foolish bit of coastal development all I do is remind people of the New Jersification of this coast, most will understand. The Garden State has almost as many jetties, groins, seawalls as coastal homes. A recent beach renourishment project buried unexploded ordinance in the new sand. New Jersey has made every coastal mistake. (69)
But New Jersey met its match during the 1962 Ash Wednesday Storm. It was not a hurricane but the storm proved to be a catalyst for our present day understanding of barrier beach dynamics. The rogue storm arrived on a moonless night in March then raged up and down a thousand miles of coast for three more days. It struck when the moon was closest to the earth and the sun and the moon were aligned. These astronomical conditions produced the feared Perigean spring tides that only occur every two years. The storm also struck after winter storms had already removed much of the beaches’ protective sands and it continued through five cycles of maximum high tide erosion. It was the worst possible storm occurring at the worst possible time.
The storm devastated the coasts from Florida to Cape Cod, but slammed into New Jersey particularly hard. Thirty foot waves crumpled Atlantic City’s famous steel pier and splintered Ocean City’s boardwalk. Forty five thousand beachfront homes tumbled into the Atlantic in New Jersey alone.
However, the day after the storm passed, coastal dwellers were stunned by the damage. Scores of inlets had slashed through barrier beaches and the dunes had been all but flattened. Such storms are not known for killing people. But this one had killed 32 people and caused half a billion dollars in damages. Perhaps It stood out particularly clearly in people’s minds precisely because it occurred in an era of fewer hurricanes when people were less accustomed to experiencing major storms.
If the Ash Wednesday Storm occurred today the sea level would be 5 inches higher, the waves would be 5 times more powerful and the ocean would inundate the land a hundred times further inland. A thousand miles of the East Coast would look like the beaches of the Indian Ocean after the 2004 Tsunami.
But coastal geologists noticed something particularly interesting. The undeveloped islands had been able to slough off the worst effects of the storm and after a few weeks they had already started to recover. That summer, waves pushed the displaced sand back onto the islands from the offshore bars and filled in most of the new inlets. By autumn beach grass had revegetated the most eroded areas of the beach and the dunes had started to reform. Officials were so impressed with the resiliency of the natural system in Virginia, that they canceled plans to build 45,000 private beach homes and created the Assateague National Seashore instead. (71)
The Ash Wednesday Storm arrived at a crucial moment in America’s evolving conservation ethic. In September 1962, Rachel Carson ushered in the modern environmental movement with the publication of her blockbuster Silent Spring. The book not only indicted the pesticide industry, it also questioned the bedrock of America’s long standing belief in the traditional concept of progress, the idea that technology and money should be used to fight and defeat nature. Yet the battered beaches of New Jersey showed that something was wrong with that traditional ethic. All the expensive groins, jetties and seawalls had not prevented the damage. In fact, like pesticides, they seemed to have made the situation worse. Yet nobody knew exactly why that was so. Here was a stable beach. You should have been able to armor it with seawalls to prevent erosion. What was wrong?
Three years later we started to find some answers to the question when James Keeling published a paper that showed that carbon dioxide had risen precipitously ever year since atmospheric scientists had started measuring it in 1957. It was clear from the data that increased carbon dioxide would lead to global warming, and global warming would lead to more coastal erosion and faster sea level rise. (72)
Keeling’s data also challenged coastal geologists old concept of erosion. Traditionally they had assumed that barrier islands formed several thousand years ago in approximately the same place you find them today, so it made sense to try to stop them from eroding.
Operating under that old paradigm, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a hundred mile long sand dune along the North Carolina’s Outer Banks islands during the Depression. But by the 1960s the National Park Service noticed that the islands were eroding on both their front and back sides. It made sense that the ocean would erode the front of the islands, but why were the back of the islands receding as well?
It is rumored among coastal geologists, that it was an inebriated old Outer Banks hermit who first came up with the answer. He kept showing up at public meetings insisting that the islands were not eroding, just migrating. Almost everyone laughed at his silly rantings but the notion still niggled at the back of some scientific minds.
Eventually the National Park Service sent a young graduate student into the field to investigate. Paul Godfrey discovered that storms normally wash sand off the front of barrier islands and deposit it on their backside marshes in a process called rollover. But the artificial sand dune was so high it was preventing sand from washing over the island so the backside marshes and beaches were receding from lack of sand. The town crank was right, barrier islands do migrate by rolling over, and anything you do to prevent that process is doomed to failure. But the problem is that the islands only migrate episodically during storms, so it is easy to ignore the long term pattern of inevitable migration, especially if you are a developer intent building a beachfront home. (73)
Coastal geologists realize that most of the East and Gulf Coast barrier islands formed on the edge of the continental shelves and have migrated to their present positions as the sea levels have risen since the last Ice Age. In fact the beaches, dunes, sandbars and mainland all migrate across the continental shelf as part of an integrated system. The Outer Banks have migrated as much as fifty miles and many Gulf Coast islands have migrated more than a hundred miles toward the shore. Some islands off Mississippi have migrated more than a 100 miles in the past century alone.
This new realization pitted coastal geologists against homeowners who wanted to see each storm as an individual episode rather than an ongoing process and coastal engineers who wanted to continue getting paid. But there was still a problem. Nobody knew exactly how much and how fast the seas were going to rise because of global warming.
This was where the climate scientists made a big mistake. In 1980, Stephen Schneider came out with a paper that predicted that global warming would cause the sea level to rise 28 feet in the next 100 years. Journalists scooped up the report, reprinting it with flashy graphics that showed the Statue of Liberty up to her keister in the Atlantic. But the media paid little attention when Schneider quietly retracted his numbers in an obscure footnote on bottom of one of the back pages of the Scientific American nine years later. (74)
But the damage had been done. A generation of coastal geologists had grown up quoting the alarmist numbers. They had cried wolf and their cries would come back to haunt them. When coastal geologists codified their new thinking in the second Skidaway Statement it landed on Ronald Reagan’s desk with a resounding thud. He was in the process of ushering in his own genial era of head-in-the sand anti-environmentalism. (75)
Developers were able to dismiss the Skidaway School of coastal geologists as a bunch of Cassandras who loved public beaches but had no concern for the lives of the people they wished to remove from the coasts. As the most articulate and visible environmentalist Al Gore was on the receiving end of the worst of the later frat house vitriol. His mentor Roger Revelle had been a prime mover behind Keeling’s original research on climate change.
So, like global warming itself, most of the science behind sea level rise was done thirty years ago, then promptly ignored by policy makers. Today we know that the sea is rising at least 6 inches every fifty years and that this translates into a 100 to a 1,000 foot horizontal retreat. This rate of sea level rise will undoubtedly increase dramatically in the years ahead. Yet communities continue to develop the coasts as if sea level rise does not exist, and that barrier islands are stable entities instead of moving features on our rapidly changing planet.

Excerpt from “Just Seconds From the Ocean,” available in local bookstores and at a discount to Coastlines Project supporters.



  1. how would the waves be 5 times more powerful with the same storm?how would the ocean inundate a hundred times further inland than in 1962?if one mile in from the ocean was inundated in 1962,now it would be a hundred miles?these statements make no sense,and are certainly not ”scientific”

    • Rob, Glad you are reading these pieces carefully. According to the Brunn’s Rule that coastal geologists use to forecast storm surge damage. If the equivalent storm occurred now when the seas are about 5 inches higher the seas would inundate from 100 to 1000 FEET further inshore. If the Ash Wednesday storm inundated a mile in 1962, it was only in isolated cases. The Brunn’s rule translates from vertical distance to horizontal distance not from horizontal to horizontal or lateral distances shoreward.

  2. […] This excerpt from the book Just Seconds From the Ocean has a good description of barrier island movement that is quite different (and possibly better) than mine. It also has a warmist slant, but notes the impact of a 1980 prediction of catastrophic sea level rise by Stephen Schneider that was retracted nine years later. GA_googleFillSlot("wpcom_sharethrough_viplite"); Rate this: Share this:TwitterFacebookStumbleUponRedditDiggEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  3. […] This excerpt from the book Just Seconds From the Ocean has a good description of barrier island movement that is quite different (and possibly better) than mine. It also has a warmist slant, but notes the impact of a 1980 prediction of catastrophic sea level rise by Stephen Schneider that was retracted nine years later. […]

  4. Is there a rough estimate as to what category hurricane equivalent the 1962 storm was? Trying to get an idea of the likely flooding from such a storm, and the maps I’ve been able to find base on Category 1-4 hurricanes. Thanks.

    • I seem to remember it was up there close to a Cat 3 or 4 hurricane. Not really equivalent because as a Northeaster it was more damaging because it lasted through several tidal cycles. Perhaps someone else has better information.

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