It's not all fun and sun on threatened coastal isles

A Celebration of the World's Barrier Islands
July 9, 2004

Geomorphology is the science that investigates the nature, history and origins of landforms on the face of the earth. The term is little known to the general public, and geomorphology is not a discipline that receives much coverage in film, television, popular books and magazines. Certainly its exposure is insignificant compared with that of, say, archaeology or zoology.

Here we have a paradox, for enormous numbers of ordinary people enjoy visiting stunning landform sites. This is made abundantly clear when one considers the millions of people who visit the national parks of the American West each year. These parks are in essence landform spectacles rather than merely biosphere reserves. Many of the great tourist attractions of the world - Ayers Rock (Uluru) in Australia, the Victoria Falls in central Africa, Table Mountain in South Africa, the Sugar Loaf in Rio de Janeiro and Wadi Rum in Jordan - are geomorphological wonders.

Closer to home, features such as Chesil Beach, Lulworth Cove and the Studland dunes attract many people to Dorset. For this reason alone, the production of an accessible, beautifully illustrated but scientifically robust book on an intriguing and important group of landforms - barrier islands - is greatly to be welcomed.

Barrier islands, of which there are nearly 2,200 all told, front about 12 per cent of the open-ocean coasts of the world. They are found on the edges of every continent except Antarctica. They comprise more than 3,000 miles of the US coastline. In Britain they are rather less important, though in the shape of Scolt Head Island in Norfolk we have a much-loved example.

Barrier islands are mostly young and delicate landforms that are vulnerable to abuse. In their natural state, they are beautiful, as the photos and batiks in this volume triumphantly demonstrate. However, some of them are now heavily settled and modified by human activities. This is particularly true of those in the eastern US, where "New Jerseyisation" is the term used for islands whose evolution has been stopped by devices such as seawalls and groynes. In addition, barrier islands may be particularly sensitive to global change because of rising sea levels and potential changes in hurricane strength and frequency.

Orrin Pilkey has produced a wide-ranging text, illustrated with the help of batiks made by Mary Edna Fraser, that describes and explains the nature of barrier islands, investigates their history, considers how they have been modified by human activities, highlights some of the problems they face (not least from real-estate developers), and shows the differences that exist between different types of islands in various global environments.

The global scope of the book is impressive. In addition to a consideration of US examples, there are treatments of features from locations as diverse as the Arctic islands, the outwash plains of Iceland, the tropical coastline of Colombia, and the desert sabkha of Abu Dhabi. What comes across very clearly is the enthusiasm that Pilkey and Fraser have for these geomorphological features. They also have a message, which is that if people understood what barrier islands were and how they operate, they might support stronger laws and regulations that would allow the islands to survive for future generations to enjoy. They also argue that barrier islands are akin to coral reefs, for both are highly sensitive systems that are endangered by human activities and are all but irreplaceable once lost.

The difference is that it will take longer for barrier islands to die. This means, unfortunately, that the problem seems less immediate and therefore less in need of attention.

I very much hope that this attractive book will succeed in stimulating other scientists to write about geomorphological features for the general public, in encouraging publishers and television producers to commission similar works, and in helping to educate people in the need to deal sensitively with barrier islands. There are many other topics deserving of similar attention: the world's shrinking glaciers, its great sand seas and limestone terrains come to mind.

Andrew Goudie is master of St Cross College, Oxford, and vice-president, International Association of Geomorphologists.

A Celebration of the World's Barrier Islands

Author - Orrin H. Pilkey and Mary Edna Fraser
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Pages - 309
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 231 11970 4

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