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Fighting erosion on Long Island with low-tech solutions inspired by nature

Climate Change: Protecting our Planet
Climate Change: Protecting our Planet 22:59

MANHASSET, N.Y. - Long Island is on the front line in the battle against climate change, and some residents there are doing what they can to fight it, particularly erosion.

Environmentalist George Thatos, 24, thinks he has some simple, low-tech ways to fight it by taking inspiration from nature itself. 

"Try to help with the ecosystems that I've been in love with for my whole life," George Thatos said. "From the tops of the cliffs, down the bluffs to beach, and into the ocean." 

Thatos is also an entrepreneur and eco-friendly patent holder. His company, Coastal Technology Corp. develops dune guards, oyster stacking devices and cliff stabilizers. Thatos believes the best defense against erosion - an overwhelming problem on Long Island - is simple, and low-tech. 

Why plants may be better than sea walls to prevent erosion  

"Native grass species have actually evolved over millions of years to stabilize their environment," Thatos said. 

At Sands Point preserve, Thatos is working to bring them back. As manmade concrete walls crumble, Thatos says there's better natural protection, including dune grasses, bayberry, beach plum, beach rose. 

"They specifically evolved to grab onto sediments, glue them together with their root systems," Thatos said. 

The plants reduce runoff, making Long Island Sound ideal for his experimental oyster reefs

"These devices are not just for erosion. They are to help integrate human technology with nature," he said. 

Professor Christopher Gobler studies coastal waters and harmful algae at Stony Brook's Marine Sciences Laboratory

"When they get like this dense, and then they collapse, that can lead to loss of oxygen in the water," Gobler said. 

Gobler and his students track the warming water, and coastal changes. That includes rescued tropical fish and seahorses that have been stranded after swimming up from the gulf. They study climate change on clams, oysters, snails, conch and sea urchins, and build oyster reefs to lower nitrogen levels. 

Environmentalist calls for "strategic retreat" inland

Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, says there are ways to overcome the doom and gloom.

"We must make a strategic retreat," Esposito said. 

She suggests a regional approach - moving inland to higher ground. 

"There's a lot of infrastructure we might not be able to move, but we can fortify it and prepare for the floods," Esposito said. 

"Long Island will look really different by the end of this century," Alison Branco, climate director for the Nature Conservancy, said. 

Branco predicts six feet or more of vertical sea level rise, changing the shape of Long Island. 

Concern for Fire Island due to climate change

Erosion on the sand dune from Atlantic Ocean on Fire Island, New York
Fire Island, N.Y.: Erosion on the sand dune is seen on the Atlantic Ocean side of the beach at Davis Park, looking west, on Fire Island, New York, on October 3, 2023. Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images

"Fire Island is really a difficult situation because of sea level rise," Branco said. "What it really is is a big sandbar. So over time, the sandbar should overwash, migrate north towards the mainland. But we have houses, and stores and whole communities there. So we need to figure out some solutions to help those folks relocate to a safe spot, so that we continue to enjoy the beaches of Fire Island which are some of the most important, both culturally ad economically for Long Island." 

"The good news is there's a ton of funding available to do some of these really important projects," she added. 

Those funds and projects would include helping raise power grids, securing sewage treatment plants, upgrading culverts where roads cross streams, and transitioning to renewable energies. 

"New innovation is needed desperately now, more than ever before. Motivated me to take matters into my own hands, and find inspiration from nature," Thatos said. 

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