The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) mounted a substantial effort in response to Hurricane Sandy including an assessment of the morphological impacts to the beach and dune system at Fire Island, New York. Field surveys of the beach and dunes collected just prior to and after landfall were used to quantify change in several focus areas. In order to quantify morphologic change along the length of the island, pre-storm (May 2012) and post-storm (November 2012) lidar and aerial photography were used to assess changes to the shoreline and beach, and to measure volumetric changes. The extent and thicknesses of overwash deposits were mapped in the field, and measurements were used to determine volume, distribution, and characteristics of the deposits.
The beaches and dunes on Fire Island were severely eroded during Hurricane Sandy, and the island breached in three locations on the eastern segment of the island. Landward shift of the upper portion of the beach averaged 19.7 meters (m) but varied substantially along the coast. Shoreline change was also highly variable, but the shoreline prograded during the storm by an average of 11.4 m, due to the deposition of material eroded from the upper beach and dunes onto the lower portion of the beach. The beaches and dunes lost 54.4 percent of their pre-storm volume, and the dunes experienced overwash along 46.6 percent of the island. The inland overwash deposits account for 14 percent of the volume lost from the beaches and dunes, indicating that the majority of material was moved offshore.
In the winter months following Hurricane Sandy, seven storm events with significant wave heights greater than four m were recorded at a wave buoy 30 nautical miles south of Fire Island. Monthly shoreline and profile surveys indicate that the beach continued to erode dramatically. The shoreline, which exhibited a progradational trend immediately after Sandy, eroded an average of 21.4 m between November 2012 and mid-March 2013, with a maximum landward shift of nearly 60 m. By March 2013 the elevation of the beach in the majority of the surveyed profiles was lowered below the mean high water level (0.46 m), and the beach lost an additional 18.9 percent of its remaining volume. In the final time period of the field surveys (March to April 2013), the beach began to show signs of rapid recovery, and in 90 percent of the profiles, the volume of the beach in April 2013 was similar to the volume measured immediately after Hurricane Sandy.
Overall, Hurricane Sandy profoundly impacted the morphology of Fire Island and resulted in an extremely low elevation, low relief configuration that has left the barrier island vulnerable to future storms. The coastal system subsequently began to show signs of recovery, and although the beach is likely to experience continued recovery in the form of volume gains, the dunes will take years to rebuild. Events such as Sandy result in a coastal environment that is a more vulnerable to future storm impacts, but they are an important natural process of barrier islands that allow these systems to evolve in response to sea-level rise.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Coastal change from Hurricane Sandy and the 2012-13 winter storm season: Fire Island, New York