Extreme Weather Management: $107M Living Breakwaters Project Offshore Staten Island Begins Construction

ON 09/14/2021 AT 04:35 AM

On September 13, in-water construction began on a unique solution to provide more efficient climate resiliency for the South Shore of Staten Island. Its innovation could change the way extreme weather adaptation and mitigation is managed all over the world.

Extreme Weather Mitigation with Custom-Designed Breakwaters

The Living Breakwaters project works with future Extreme Weather events off the Staten Island Shore, to rechannel their energy and minimize storm surges. Photo: SCAPE Studio, courtesy of the Buckminster Fuller Institute

The project, known as the Living Breakwaters, is the result of extensive hydronamic wave modeling begun after Hurricane Sandy came ashore in northern New Jersey on October 29, 2012.

That storm, known locally as Superstorm Sandy, went down in history as the strongest hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. Its powerful winds, torrential rains, and storm surges eventually caused almost $70 billion in damages – in 2012 dollars. It also killed 233 people in countries from the Caribbean to Canada.

Not long after this storm came ashore, in 2013 the state of New York established the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR), with its first objective being the coordination of state recovery efforts for Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Storm Lee. Out of that came GOSR’s $4.5 billion federal Community Development Block Grant, with the explicit goal of providing funding to assist the New York coastal region for extreme weather resiliency.

The new initiative involved extensive survey work, explorations of how existing shore structures fared in the extreme weather, and engagement of local communities to determine the optimum strategies for dealing with future such storm events. Scientists and marine engineers worked together with unique design firms to create and evaluate extensive mathematical models of different solutions which could help minimize the damage of such extreme storms in the future.

Those analyses and feet-on-the-sand studies resulted in the just-launched construction project known as the Living Breakwaters.

The construction project, when complete, will comprise 2,400 linear feet of breakwaters. Those breakwaters will be built as eight separate and partially submerged breakwaters made of stone with addition materials embedded and with custom-created eco-concrete elements.

The Living Breakwaters will also include what the designers refer to as “reef ridges” and “reef streets,” created to diffuse and discharge potentially high destructive energy of future storms away from the shorelines. The “reef ridges” are custom-created protrusions of rock and other materials that will set along the ocean-facing sides of the breakwaters. The “reef streets” are the spaces between the reef ridges.

The combination of these unique construction elements is intended both to provide habitats for a variety of marine life which were ripped from the shorelines during Superstorm Sandy, including a live oyster installation which will be installed in 2024, after the Living Breakwaters are complete.

The structures are also designed to channel the power of storms in a manner which even allows for automatic capturing of sediments along the shoreline. Over multiple years, the shoreline will effectively widen in the future, in part using the power of the storms themselves to help widen beachfronts rather than rip them up as in the past.

The project, which will take several years to complete, represents a new approach to dealing with the ever-increasing power of extreme weather in a world with superheated oceans and higher water content bearing down on America’s coastlines. Rather than simply attempting to push back against the storm, the Living Breakwaters works with the storm to channel its energy away from where it could do the worst damage. In this case it will also harness some of that energy to rebuild the shorelines damaged in the past, but future designs of this kind might find other ways to trap some of that extreme weather power for other uses as well.

The project was created based on SCAPE Landscape Architecture’s proposal in response to the 2013 Rebuild by Design Competition. That competition was funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a direct response to what happened to the area after Superstorm Sandy hit.