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Summer 2002


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Shifting Shorelines


Shifting Shorelines
Geologist Joe Kelley's research and passion are dedicated to protecting the Maine coast

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Joe Kelley can't sit still. In the Bryand Global Sciences Center on The University of Maine campus, he fairly leaps in and out of his chair, juggling rolled-up seafloor charts in a chaotic office that resembles a wallpaper store hit by a tornado.

With an athlete's restless body language and a ready smile that shows all his teeth, Kelley radiates energy. And it's clear on this spring day in Orono that the marine geologist itches to be outside, to be walking the beaches and bluffs of his native Maine, to be on or under the familiar waters of the Gulf of Maine or Cobscook Bay.

For 20 years, Kelley has pugnaciously guarded the well-being of the state's natural coastal resources. He was lead author of the 1989 "bible" of Maine coastal management, Living with the Coast of Maine, and was a guiding force behind the most environmentally protective coastal management regulations in the nation. The Maine Audubon Society has called him "Maine's coastal conscience."

"When I came back to Maine in 1982 after being gone for a decade, I saw the same fights developing that I had seen in New Jersey and Louisiana over how close people could build to the water," says Kelley, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and School of Marine Sciences. "I didn't want Maine to make the same mistakes."

His book is now 13 years old, and many battles if not the war have been won. The inexorable rise of sea level at a rate of more than one foot per century is now accepted by the most hard-headed of his opponents. And there have been enough highly visible failures of engineered "solutions" to shoreline erosion that even schoolchildren know it's a devil's bargain to tinker with the powerful natural cycles of beach migration.

But Kelley hasn't relaxed his vigilance. In fact, he left his long-time job as the state's marine geologist at the Maine Geological Survey in 1999 to join the faculty at UMaine, in part because the former position prohibited discussions with state legislators on coastal management issues dear to his heart.

"I'm not against development. I'm against construction that impinges on the public's right to have access to a coastal area," Kelley says. "But those rights are terminated by homeowners who prevent access by putting up fences and walls, and by practices like building seawalls or groins that, in the end, eliminate the area altogether."


Kelley fondly recalls "extensive areas of pristine, accessible shore" back in the '50s and '60s when he was growing up in Portland, the son of first-generation immigrants from Galway, Ireland.

He earned a full scholarship to Boston University with every intention of attending medical school. Then "just fascinated" by a required geology course and its fieldtrips Kelley changed majors and went on to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania for a Ph.D. At Lehigh, Kelley met his future wife, Alice, a geologist who is now a UMaine instructor and a Ph.D. candidate in Quaternary studies.

It was at Cape May in southern New Jersey that Kelley saw the "worst sorts of coastal construction." From the book: "I found a black humor in the plight of residents who lost poorly sited, but fabulously expensive properties to the changing shoreline. I could not comprehend the mentality or the motives of developers who constructed high-rise buildings so near to the margin of the sea."

This "New Jerseyization" of the shoreline was evident on a larger scale in coastal Louisiana when Kelley accepted a teaching job at the University of New Orleans in 1979. Appalled by costly and destructive efforts to stabilize a shoreline ravaged by reckless development in the face of the rising sea, he and Alice wrote Living with the Louisiana Shore.

In 1982, Kelley was hired by the Maine Geological Survey and returned to the state he loved as a self-described "beach-hugger" and Audubon Society stalwart. His glimpse of the future down South was motivation enough to lead the charge for sane management of the Maine coast before it was too late.


The tourist-brochure image of Maine as an unchanging, unyielding bedrock sanctuary from the raging sea is a reassuring one, but geologist Kelley knows better. In the past 20,000 years, mile-thick glacial ice covered the state and depressed the Earth's crust with its weight. The coast and major river valleys were flooded far inland as the glaciers melted.

Today, sea level is again on the rise, and the 3,500-mile Maine "tidal shoreline" is responding unevenly. Down East is drowning rapidly because of land subsidence possibly related to earthquakes, he says. The central coast is fairly stable, while southern areas are sinking more slowly than the northern coast.

With the rising sea and natural erosion caused by storms and tides, the bottom line is that anyone who builds on the "soft coast" Maine's beaches and shoreline bluffs of unstable "Ice Age mud," as opposed to classic granite promontories is playing "real estate roulette," Kelley says.

His philosophy is reflected in a set of simple truths: The beach is a natural system in dynamic equilibrium; erosion isn't a problem until a structure is built on the shore; intervening to protect a beach upsets the balance and destroys what was to be saved.

"Let the lighthouse, beach cottage, motel, or hot dog stand fall when its time comes," he writes with typical wit and candor.

That logic informs Maine's Sand Dune Law governing coastal development that Kelley helped to strengthen and expand in the late 1980s into a model for other states. A strong law was critical in Maine because of the state's extensive (97 percent) private ownership of the coast, he says. Among its progressive provisions: if more than half of a shoreline structure such as a seawall is destroyed in a storm, it cannot be rebuilt.

Not everyone agrees with Kelley's logic. He says the bitter, prolonged fight over the dredging of Wells Harbor was "the worst" of his battles, not the least because of head-butting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Historically, the harbor was a shallow tidal inlet of the Webhannet River between Wells and Drakes Island beaches, accessible only at high tide. In the 1960s, when recreational boaters wanted to deepen Wells Harbor, the Corps of Engineers bracketed the inlet with jetties and dredged a channel, dumping the sand on an adjacent salt marsh.

But the harbor repeatedly filled in and the beaches began disappearing, thanks to complex sand migration patterns disrupted by the jetties. Further dredging was halted under the modern regulations. An environmentally acceptable compromise was recently implemented.

Not surprisingly, Kelley was front and center during the debate and made few friends in Wells. "I'm a pretty aggressive person," he says. "I don't take it personally. I can laugh and tell a joke in the middle of an argument, and it just drives them crazy."


Kelley's charm and energy are assets in appearances before the state legislature, citizen groups and media. The father of three is a licensed pilot and a certified diver, runs 5-6 miles a day and leads an annual cross-country skiing trek with his students across Baxter State Park. He writes fiction, cooks with a Cajun accent and wears green on St. Patrick's Day.

But he's first and foremost a researcher, and his arguments about responsible coastal development demand attention. Kelley travels widely on research projects, to Alaska, Ireland, Portugal, China, the West Indies.

Kelley applies solid science to what was almost medieval prognostication just decades ago. He uses a full technological arsenal: ground-penetrating and side-scan sonar, remote- controlled submarines, satellite and airplane imagery, robot buoys recording every twitch of the ocean.

He's been instrumental in developing a series of maps classifying Maine's coast according to risk for erosion or landslides. Another effort mapped seafloor topography.

Much of his local funding comes from the Maine Sea Grant Program, including support for a project he hopes is a prototype for the future. In collaboration with UMaine colleague Dan Belknap and Steve Dickson of the Maine Geological Survey, Kelley recruited a volunteer force of 70 "stakeholders" property owners, teachers, scientists, environmentalists to record regular beach profiles at 10 locations in southern Maine. The goal is to develop a database of sand migration patterns correlated with weather and ocean activity.

"Awareness levels have improved tremendously since 1982," he says. "But continuing education is the key.

"I want my kids to have the same opportunity to grow up along a beautiful shoreline that I had, but I'm no longer so naive to believe that will simply happen without effort."

And will Joe Kelley be there when the Sand Dune Law comes up for review in public hearings this summer? "Oh yeah, I'll testify," he says with a big smile.

by Luther Young
Summer 2002

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