In August 1969, Hurricane Camille slammed into Mississippi with winds of nearly 200 miles an hour. The storm blew many things far and wide, including the career track of coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey ’57. Up to that point, Pilkey had worked quietly studying deep-sea sediments, becoming an expert on abyssal plains (the flat underwater surfaces found along the edges of continents). But when he visited his parents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Pilkey found he was a lot more interested in what was happening to coastlines than on ocean floors far from shore. Pilkey and his father co-wrote a book, How to Live With an Island, and Pilkey’s focus started moving from sea to land.

“This was at a time when I was getting bored with going out to sea anyway,” Pilkey says in his office at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “People were actually interested in this, and nobody ever called me about abyssal plains—ever. But this had me in the public eye, all of a sudden. So I decided to go ashore, from deep-sea research vessels to 16-foot skiffs studying shorelines.”

Orrin Pilkey ’57
Orrin Pilkey ’57 has never shied away from controversy. (Photo Coke Whitworth/OnEarth)

As Pilkey studied shorelines, he couldn’t help noticing changes happening because of rising sea levels, a phenomenon attributed to global warming—and also that many of the things people were doing to try and “save” beaches, such as trucking in sand and building offshore breakwaters, were making environmental problems worse. And so he began sounding the alarm in the media and in a series of books, including The World’s Beaches, The Beaches Are Moving: The Drowning of America’s Shoreline, and The Rising Sea.

Pilkey has been involved in 43 books as co-editor or co-author, including the new Global Climate Change: A Primer (Duke University Press). Co-written with his son Keith Pilkey, the book makes its case with both words and pictures in the form of striking batik paintings by artist Mary Edna Fraser.

Global Climate Change arrives at a key moment in the public perception of global warming and whether it represents a serious threat. At the turn of this century, public opinion was in line with the prevailing scientific opinion that carbon emissions were causing dangerous climate changes. But since then, global warming has emerged as a hot-button issue that ranks somewhere between evolution and abortion on the controversy scale. After a decade of contentious debate, fewer than half of all Americans now believe that global warming is due to human actions, according to a 2010 Gallup poll.

In an attempt to turn the tide, Pilkey breaks the science down for a nonscientific readership and offers talking points aimed at winning over skeptics. The book also considers arguments from the other side of the debate, which Pilkey calls “The Global Warming Denial Lobby.”

“It’s gotten so political,” Pilkey says. “In order to be a good Republican now, you have to say you don’t believe in global change. We scientists have a very hard time seeing Oklahoma Senator [James] Inhofe saying that global warming is ‘the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people’ and not being laughed at. He is respected for that, and he is so wrong. Now there are many things we may be wrong about because it’s all uncertain. It is inexact, as projections inevitably are. But calling global warming a ‘hoax’ is ridiculous because the cumulative evidence—melting glaciers, shrinking sea ice, melting permafrost, rising sea levels—is overwhelming. If you look at satellite data for the last 20 years, it’s undeniable.”

It’s no surprise that Pilkey has put himself on the firing line, because he’s a self-described “scientific advocate” who has never shied away from controversy. Some of the earliest waves he made were for speaking out against the development of fragile beaches in North Carolina, where many resort communities have expensive homes that are now on the verge of falling into the ocean. Pilkey argues that they should not be saved, a sentiment that doesn’t play well with developers.

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that Orrin is the best-known coastal geologist in the world,” says Rob Young, a professor at Western Carolina University who studied under Pilkey at Duke. “He relishes that role, and nobody else is filling it. He speaks what he believes to be the truth, and he’s right the vast majority of the time. In today’s political climate, facts are often viewed as an extreme political statement. There was a great cartoon in the journal Science about the climate-change debate, with a Paul Revere figure riding into the capitol building on a horse and yelling, ‘The facts are coming! The facts are coming!’ You could put Orrin Pilkey on that horse.”

Pilkey was not the most avid student at Washington State, amassing a modest 2.6 grade-point average (mostly because he says he was having too much fun). But he managed to get into graduate school, earning degrees from Montana and Florida State. In 1965, he took a position at Duke, where he is now professor emeritus. That gives him the perfect bully pulpit for playing the provocateur.

He minces no words when talking about those who deny that climate change is taking place, derisively calling a Swedish geologist who is well known in the doubting community “some jerk.” And he isn’t too concerned about “Climategate,” the 2009 controversy that gave climate change doubters ample ammunition, brushing it off as “nothing more than some smart-assed scientists grousing out loud.” The way Pilkey sees it, there’s no time to waste on social niceties.The stakes are too high.

“Deniers hit at the fact that we don’t know what will happen,” Pilkey says. “But just letting things continue on as they are is a bad experiment with great cost attached to it. If I was king of the world, I’d do everything I could to start reducing CO2 output—cover the desert with solar panels, put wind farms in shallow ocean floors. I’d promote nuclear power, even though I think it’s dangerous no matter how well it’s done. And of course, I’d go down to the shoreline and start moving buildings. Do not pump sand onto beaches or build sea walls. My God, Miami is going to be a horror story. It’s the most threatened city in the world. It sits on top of porous limestone, and there are ponds in the city where you can see tides corresponding to those offshore. So building a sea wall would do no good. You’d have to build a dam.”

No, the news is not too good for places like Miami.

“All projections are that we’re looking at a one-meter rise in ocean levels worldwide by the year 2100,” Pilkey says. “Of course, we can’t prove a thing. Deniers ask for proof and there isn’t any, and they blow up every mistake into arguments about how the whole thing is a hoax. But all indications are that it will happen.”

Reviews of books by Orrin Pilkey

The World’s Beaches: A Global Guide to the Science of the Shoreline

The Rising Sea