The sun beamed on the backs of nearly 100 volunteers as they shoveled sand, rolled wheelbarrows, hammered fence posts and buried over 4,000 native coastal plants in the ground along the eroded shoreline at Sunset Beach. The heavily-trafficked yet perilously fragile coastline from Pipeline to Sunset has taken the brunt of some of the state’s worst erosion over the past few winter surf seasons, becoming a canary in the coal mine for micro and macro impacts that coastal communities have begun to face globally.
Last winter locals and visitors witnessed the North Shore’s beloved bike path crumble into the sea while a 20+ foot drop off from Kamehameha Highway to the sand exposed roots, rebar and risk. The precarious condition of Sunset Beach has directly affected community members, impacting homeowners, public infrastructure, native flora and fauna, housing, Hawai`i’s tourism industry, ocean sporting events and more.
The Sunset Beach Dune Restoration Project is now fully underway, and September 8 was its first large-scale volunteer day. Spearheaded by the North Shore Community Land Trust (NSCLT), the Dune Restoration project has successfully begun repairing the stretch of shoreline and will continue to work tirelessly — with partners that include the World Surf League (WSL), City & County of Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, State of Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources, UH Sea Grant, Townscape Inc., North Shore Outdoor Circle, and North Shore community members – to care for the coastline and educate visitors and residents on the importance of protecting this significant area.
Although NSCLT and partners have dedicated their focus to Sunset Beach, erosion is witnessed along the entire North Shore stretch, notably Ehukai Beach Park, which is home to world-famous Pipeline. Natural, seasonal and global climate factors have contributed to the recent severity of erosion including trade wind swells, northerly direction of waves, strong winds and general sea level rise. However, one indisputable and controllable factor is human impact — particularly given year over year record tourism numbers to the state — and this is the No. 1 target of the Sunset Beach Dune Restoration Project.
“The last several winters we’ve had alarming incidences of coastal erosion,” said Doug Cole, Executive Director of NSCLT and lifetime resident of the North Shore / Oahu. “Whether that’s from high surf or the winds or the combination of that with the swell patterns, we’ve seen certain areas that in my lifetime are at the worst I’ve ever seen. I think it’s a real wake up call to all of us that this is a very sensitive area and we need to take better care of it and be careful of how we pass through and enjoy the shoreline.”
While Cole mentions that the current erosion is in part due to uncontrollable natural occurrences, the impacts that we do have control over are what need our immediate attention.
“We’re not properly educating the visitors and our resident population on the sensitivity of these areas, we need to do a better job,” Cole continued. “There’s a limit to what the State and the County can achieve, and I think it’s on us as community members to bear some of that burden of trying to educate users. That is what NSCLT is trying to proactively do – restore the sand dune system at Sunset Beach and provide signage and fencing and educational opportunities for the visitors and the residents that pass through those areas, so they become more aware of their impacts.”
Next time you visit Sunset Beach, be sure to check out the work that so many volunteers have committed time, energy and resources toward. It includes not only the newly planted native coastal species to help protect the shoreline, but also designated access points for foot traffic, wood fencing sourced from repurposed invasive ironwood trees from Kahuku Point, temporary signage for visitor education and an access mat and foot brush to keep the sand on the beach.
The issue of beach erosion is not exclusive to Hawai`i; stretches of popular coastlines along Australia’s Gold Coast, Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, Florida and Spain are also feeling the effects. Dolan Eversole, Coastal Geologist and active member of the University of Hawai`i Sea Grant Program knows this all too well and says we are at a point in time where the beaches may never look the same again.
“Our shorelines are very dynamic and while most of us have seen the sand come and go from winter to summer as a normal, even expected, event, we are seeing a slow, chronic erosion of the shoreline at the same time,” said Eversole. “What we’re observing now is the result of years of shoreline slowly chewing away at the beach, sometimes more severe than others. But each time it does, in a big erosion event like this, it never quite comes back to where it was before. And that’s what climate change looks like.”
Eversole stood along the sheer drop-off at Ehukai and looked down past the homes on the brink of being swallowed by the sea.
“I don’t expect this beach to recover back to what it was like before,” he continued. “Unless we have some very unusual west swell event that brings a lot of sand in this area… That will give a little bit of buffer room for these homeowners to not be right on the edge of literally an eroding bank. Fingers crossed with an El Nino winter we might just get that, but we can’t count on it.”
Thankfully, what we can count on is a growing collective of residents who love the North Shore and are willing to devote their time to maintaining what they can for future generations.
“What makes the North Shore so awesome is there’s a lot of green and a lot of undeveloped land, it’s a rural place and the beaches and the ocean and the waves and the experiences that we can have here are second to none in the world,” Cole said of his beloved home. “That’s what connects everybody to this place and connects each other to one another here on the North Shore, the fact that we all have this shared appreciation for the ocean, the beach and this place.”
As part of a larger sustainability education initiative, the WSL has worked with NSCLT to document the Sunset Beach Dune Restoration Project and will be screening the short film at various activations during the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing season. Along with donating $20,000 and hours of time and resources toward the cause, the WSL and Vans also continue to produce one of Hawai`i’s most sustainable event series – the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing – not only providing opportunities for local athletes, viable economic impacts to the North Shore economy and Oahu-at-large, but leading the way in sustainable event staging, production and management while celebrating the birthplace of surfing.
In addition to the competition, the WSL and Vans continuously strive to set the bar for positive environmental and economic impacts for the North Shore through a deep commitment to green practices and community immersion. Major initiatives include reducing event footprints and removing structures from Sunset and Ehukai beaches. They also implement comprehensive waste diversion, renewable clean energy, sustainable hydration and viable compost and catering activations each year, not to mention traffic mitigation, visitor education and celebratory events for the entire community to enjoy.
To get involved in the Sunset Beach Dune Restoration Project or stay up-to-date on volunteer work days throughout the North Shore, visit the NSCLT’s Facebook page or check out northshoreland.org.