PORT REPUBLIC, N.J. (AP) — Like many kids at the Jersey Shore, Stewart Farrell loved going to the beach, playing on the sand and swimming in the ocean in and around Asbury Park.
But unlike other kids, who were content to ride the waves on surfboards, Farrell scrutinized the way the swells formed, how they broke on the shoreline, and where the water went when they were over.
When he got arrested as a youth for allegedly trespassing on private beach property in Deal, a Jersey Shore town notorious for its efforts to discourage outsiders from using its beaches, Farrell already knew the state’s public beach access law, pointed out that he was walking below the high tide line as the law permitted, and was released.
In 1962, a devastating nor’easter sent waves pouring across the beach near his home, burying streets under sand.
“I talked my mom into ‘going for it’ across the sand on the road,” Farrell recalled. “Naturally she got stuck, and was none too pleased with me. I managed to extract the car, but gained a big respect for storms.”
That curiosity, and a relentless drive to learn everything he could about the shoreline, led to a half-century-long career as one of the nation’s foremost experts on coastal science, particularly the ever-changing contours of beaches.
Few people alive know more about the shifting sands of the shoreline than Farrell, 80, and his expertise has informed governments, property owners, students and scientific peers.
He was among the earliest coastal scientists to caution that while hard man-made barriers like rock walls and bulkheads may protect property behind them, they also wreck any beach in front of it by rapidly accelerating erosion until there is no sand left between the ocean and the barrier.
He favors softer engineered solutions like the beach replenishments being carried out primarily by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in recent decades, saying they are more flexible and in keeping with the eons-old process of ebbing and flowing sand, particularly along barrier island beaches.
Farrell is retiring Friday as director of the Coastal Research Center, a prestigious research center he founded at Stockton University. Its main legacy has been decades of measuring the size of beaches in New Jersey.
The resulting database chronicles the constantly changing face of the coastline, and provides a foundation for future research and decisions regarding the shoreline.
“It’s dynamically unpredictable,” Farrell said of the shoreline. “You can’t make a statement with any level of certainty that will last for more than a week or so. Winds, tides, currents and storms kind of run the show.”
Farrell focused at an early age on a phenomenon that was just starting to come into clearer focus in the 1960s: Rapid development near and on the coast all around the United States and its impact on beaches.
“In California, as people began pressing harder against the coast, they noticed that their shorelines were unstable for different reasons,” he said. “It spread to the East Coast. That’s where I stepped in. I was really interested in it.”
He did a graduate thesis on coastal conditions in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, and was hired at Stockton in 1971. A decade later, he founded the Coastal Research Center, which quickly found itself in demand from shore towns struggling to deal with storms and erosion eating away at their beaches.
It started with work for the southern New Jersey borough of Avalon, which in 1981 was losing 20 feet (6.1 meters) of sand a week from a beach that had been 400 feet (122 meters) wide. The measuring and charting of the contours of that beach would eventually be replicated in 170 fixed monitoring points along the 130-mile (209-kilometer) Jersey Shore, and the center remains the go-to source of information on the condition of beaches before and after storms.
“No state needed a Stew Farrell more than New Jersey,” said Orrin Pilkey, a groundbreaking coastal scientist at Duke University whose books include “Retreat From A Rising Sea” and “The Last Beach,” warning of threats to America’s shorelines from rampant development, poorly designed engineering projects and other sources. He cites the sea wall in Sea Bright, New Jersey, as a particularly major cause of beach erosion.
He even came up with a term for such erosion, saying that beaches where sand vanished near sea walls had become “New Jersey-ized.”
“New Jersey went there first with massive seawalls,” Pilkey said. “We all learned from New Jersey. Stew came on the scene having to withstand a lot of opposition to his ideas. He played a major role in preservation of the state’s recreational beaches.”
Farrell also documented how shore towns that had undergone beach replenishment, where sand is pumped ashore from the ocean floor, fared vastly better during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 than those that were not protected by dunes.
In succeeding years, his expertise was sought repeatedly in court as property owners wrangled with governments over the use of eminent domain to seize control of parts of privately owned beaches so that protective dunes could be built there.
Dennis Reinknecht, director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Resilience Engineering and Construction, said Farrell’s work has influenced many state officials as they make decisions on beach maintenance.
“For these and many other reasons, he will forever be appreciated as both a great educator and a steadfast partner in state and federal coastal protection projects,” Reinknecht said.
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