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Hobbs: "The Beach Book"

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For 40 years, research scientist Carl Hobbs, a professor at William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has worked the beaches of eastern North America.  His recent publication, The Beach Book: The Science of the Shore, is his attempt to share selected insights with recreational beach-goers. By understanding some of the natural processes at work, Hobbs believes, vacationers can enhance their enjoyment of the environment they love.

Beach environments certainly are transient. “Nature always is changing the world around us,” he said. “On the beach, you can see it in a matter of hours and days.”

In the book, he attempts to answer some of the basic but important questions commonly posed to him. These include what is sand, where does it come from, why does its color range from white to black.

People also want to know how many grains of sand a beach contains, he said. His simple answer is “a lot.”

If you consider what geologists consider “fine” sand, sand whose grains measure one-eighth of a millimeter in diameter, the answer is that 512 million will fit into a one-liter bottle; 512 billion grains will fill one cubic meter of beach, Hobbs explained.

Other topics introduced in the book relate to tidal inlets, salt marshes and other manifestations of coastal environments. He describes how the sun creates wind by heating the atmosphere, how the wind then blows both sand and water creating dunes and waves, and how waves get large and then “break.” He also considers tides, explaining that in the Chesapeake Bay the tide change is approximately one meter whereas in the maritime provinces of Canada it is ten times as great.

In order to communicate the science involved, the book features numerous graphs and charts depicting events such as wave deformation—why they tend to break parallel to the shore—and wave defraction. Other topics, such as beach erosion and beach migration, are enhanced with photographs; readers can actually see a house surrounded by ocean.

According to Hobbs, his hope for readers of The Beach Book is that they, while visiting a sand dune or a tidal marsh or an oceanfront, can look up from one of the pages and say, “Yes, I just read about that, and I can see what’s happening.”

By learning about such processes, readers certainly will be more informed when considering ongoing policy issues involving topics such as beach replenishment, coastal road building and coastal zoning measures, Hobbs said.

“If we as a society can understand how nature works, we can formulate better ways to cope with it, better ways to live with what she is doing to us and not try to force nature to fit what we need,” he said.