From Gray to Green: How Building With Nature May Save Our Fragile Coastlines

an illustration of a coastline
ZME Science
Langwarder Groden, Germany
From Gray to Green: How Building With Nature May Save Our Fragile Coastlines

On the evening of January 31, 1953, an unexpected and devastating storm surge hit the coastlines of the North Sea. It marked one of the deadliest natural disasters of the 20th century. Particularly in the Netherlands, the catastrophe wasn’t just about the staggering loss of 1,836 lives and the obliteration of tens of thousands of homes — it was a wake-up call. This event, seared into Dutch history as ‘Watersnoodramp‘, would reshape the nation’s relationship with its coastline for decades to come.

Motivated by this tragic event, the Netherlands embarked on an unprecedented mission, building formidable barriers to fend off nature’s wrath. For the next 50 years, they started erecting barriers that would protect them from such storms. Dike after dike, barrier after barrier, the country solidified its grip on the coastline — and even claimed more land.

In the low-lying landscape of the Netherlands, flooding was a fact of life. Over the years, taming the sea became a source of pride and wealth, and the sophisticated series of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm surge barriers became a matter of national identity. 

The coastal defenses promised to shield the nation from even the most powerful storms. No disaster like the dreaded Watersnoodramp would ever happen again. 

It worked.

The Delta Works, as the project was named, quickly became the poster child of hard concrete coastal defense. Neighboring Germany and other countries learned from the Dutch, and soon, large concrete dikes became the norm in Europe.

But all was not well. 

Environmental scientists have long highlighted the many flaws of this hard engineering approach and the long-term problems it can cause. Hard concrete barriers increase erosion in some areas and cause excessive sedimentation in others; they destroy habitats and disrupt tidal dynamics, affecting the entire coast; they affect the quality of sandbanks, vegetation, and dunes in the area. And that’s just to name a few of the problems. 

To make matters even worse, there’s also climate change. Sea levels are rising and storm surges are becoming more common across the world, as are all sorts of extreme weather events. This risks overcoming the hard, immobile engineered barriers. 

This issue isn’t unique to the Netherlands. About 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast. It’s never been more important to safeguard our shorelines.

We could just keep building bigger dikes and barriers. But there’s an increasing realization that brute force may not be the answer. Instead, scientists and local communities are now looking towards nature instead.  


This is a summary. Read the full article on ZME Science.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in ZME Science on November 14, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: An illustration of a coastline using gray and green coastal infrastructure / Credit: ZME Science.

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