Yorktown breakwaters

Shoreline program helps revitalize historic port

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      Stone breakwaters, and the sandy areas behind them, help protect shorelines from erosion.  
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      Scott Hardaway heads up the Shoreline Studies Program at VIMS.  
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      Researchers in VIMS Shoreline Studies Program helped design the breakwaters that protect the Yorktown waterfront.  
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It might be the last thing on their minds as they relax on the beach or shop in nearby stores, but visitors to Yorktown’s Riverwalk Landing are beneficiaries of a long-term partnership between York County officials and scientists at VIMS.

The collaboration has helped the historic riverfront community stem shoreline erosion, weather Hurricane Isabel and several powerful nor’easters, and maintain a popular swimming beach.

VIMS’ lead in the project is Scott Hardaway, head of VIMS’ Shoreline Studies Program. He and his staff provided technical advice concerning the size, shape, and placement of the 12 breakwaters that now line the York River waterfront.

Breakwaters are elongate structures, typically of stone, built just seaward of the shoreline to be protected. They work by disrupting waves before they reach land. To ensure that a breakwater system performs most effectively, Hardaway’s team uses field measurements and computer models to identify the particular conditions under which it will operate. They characterize prevailing winds and waves, predict water levels for 50- or 100-year storms, and map seafloor and shoreline profiles.

Yorktown’s breakwaters weathered a severe test when Hurricane Isabel blew ashore in 2003 with a 7-foot storm tide. At the storm’s peak, 4-foot waves were breaking across the breakwaters and into the adjacent buildings.

Although Yorktown’s waterfront suffered considerable damage, Hardaway says the breakwaters did their job by preventing even worse destruction.

“The breakwaters significantly reduced wave action, which likely ensured the structural integrity of the buildings on Water Street,” says Hardaway. “The system maintained its integrity and performed above expectations. It was designed for a 50-year event and sustained what many consider a 100-year storm in this part of the Bay.”

Hardaway notes that trade-offs between protection and cost are an integral part of any breakwater design. “The Yorktown breakwaters minimized Isabel’s damage, hastened post-storm recovery, and provide beach and dune habitat. Higher breakwaters would give more protection, but at what cost?”

Local officials will continue to grapple with that question during the coming years, as many hurricane experts predict that the current period of enhanced hurricane activity in the Atlantic will continue for a decade or more.