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Impact of Climate Change on Piers and Piling Choices

Impact of Climate Change on Piers and Piling Choices

Climate change can also impact out homes more than we know. At the heart of this climate change are structures that have served as quiet sentinels for decades, if not centuries – our piers and pilings.

The oceans are not just inching up; they’re advancing at a pace that’s catching many off guard. These changes are not just geographic; they’re deeply infrastructural. Coastal communities, with their boardwalks, docks, and piers, are now on the frontline, facing the immediate consequences of these rising waters.

The Impact on Piers

Piers have long been integral to coastal living. Whether it’s the fisherman casting his line at dawn, the lovers strolling under a moonlit sky, or the tourists soaking in the seascape, piers have anchored countless memories. But beneath these narratives lies a structural integrity designed to withstand the forces of nature. However, the rules of the game are changing.

As climate change intensifies, piers are confronting a barrage of threats they weren’t initially designed for. The stability and longevity of these structures are in jeopardy. But what are these threats? And how are they challenging the very ethos of pier construction? To comprehend the evolving landscape of coastal engineering, it’s crucial to break down the emerging challenges piece by piece, offering a nuanced perspective on a world in flux.

The Invisible Corroder

When we think of the sea’s encroachment, we often visualize flooded streets or submerged lands. However, one of the more insidious consequences of rising sea levels is saltwater intrusion. As sea levels rise, the boundary where fresh water meets saltwater shifts, with saltwater pushing further into freshwater areas.

Piers, many of which are constructed in regions that were historically freshwater, are now coming into direct contact with saltwater or, at the very least, brackish water—a mix of fresh and saltwater. Saltwater, laden with salts and other minerals, has corrosive properties. Over time, this saltwater can degrade the materials from which the pier and its pilings are constructed. Concrete may start to spall, metal fittings may begin to rust, and wooden parts might decay at a much faster rate. The end result? A dramatic reduction in the lifespan of the pier, necessitating frequent repairs or even complete overhauls.

Enhanced Load

Historically, piers were constructed to handle the loads typical of their locations—be it the weight of the people and vehicles using them, the force of the local tides, or the occasional storm surge. However, the new climate reality has thrown this calculus into disarray.

With increasing frequency, piers are facing ‘once-in-a-century’ storm surges and waves of extraordinary height and power. Over time, this “enhanced load” can lead to structural weaknesses, especially if the pier was not originally designed to handle such forces.

It’s not just about the physical weight either. Tidal surges can deposit debris, from uprooted trees to wreckage, onto piers, adding additional weight and potentially causing blockages or further damage.

The New Piling Choices

As sea levels continue their relentless rise and extreme weather events become the norm rather than the exception, the materials and methods that were once deemed industry-standard in pier construction are being pushed to their limits. The pilings, which act as the backbone of these waterfront structures, must be reevaluated in light of these changes.

Material Choices

Composite Materials

Strength in Synthesis: The world of materials science has been making leaps and bounds, with composite materials emerging as frontrunners for a myriad of applications, not least of which is pier construction. Composites are engineered materials made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties.

For pier pilings, the appeal of composite materials lies in their resistance to corrosion. They can resist the insidious creep of saltwater, ensuring that the pilings remain intact and functional far longer than their traditional counterparts.

Galvanized or Stainless Steel

The Shield Against the Sea: While steel itself is susceptible to rust and corrosion, when galvanized or made stainless, its longevity in saltwater environments is dramatically improved. Galvanization involves coating steel with a protective layer of zinc, which acts sacrificially to prevent rust. Stainless steel, on the other hand, contains chromium, which forms an oxide layer on the surface, acting as a shield against corrosion.

Deeper Pilings

As the ground becomes more unstable due to increased erosion and as the threats from violent weather phenomena grow, the need for stability becomes paramount. Deeper pilings provide this stability. By anchoring the pier far below the traditionally accepted depth, they ensure that even if the surface is compromised, the foundation remains unwavering.

Flexibility and Mobility

The fixed, rigid structures of the past are giving way to designs that can move with the times, quite literally. Floating piers, designed to rise and fall with the tide, are becoming increasingly popular. Not only do they adapt to fluctuating water levels seamlessly, but they also mitigate the risk of damage during tidal surges or unexpected floods.

Beyond floating piers, even traditionally anchored piers are being designed with more flexibility, allowing them to sway or adjust without breaking under the stress of shifting waters.

Environmentally Friendly Options

The challenges of climate change are twofold. Recycled plastic pilings are emerging as champions in this regard. Not only are they incredibly durable and resistant to many of the threats posed by changing climates, but they also repurpose plastics that might otherwise litter our landscapes or waterways.

A Holistic Approach to Pier Design

Future pier designs must incorporate climate resilience. This doesn’t just mean stronger or deeper pilings. It involves:

Surveillance Systems

With advancements in technology, the capability to monitor our structures continuously in real-time has become a reality. When it comes to the health of our piers, guesswork simply won’t do. These aren’t your everyday monitoring tools; they’re a fusion of cutting-edge sensors and high-definition cameras, meticulously tracking the integrity of every part of a pier, from the pilings that anchor them to the earth to the decks where people amble and fish.

Imagine having a continuous feed of data, painting a picture of how a pier responds to the relentless tug of tides or the caress of waves. This isn’t merely about spotting cracks or rust; it’s a deep dive into the very soul of the pier, understanding where it’s robust and where it may falter. And in an age where data drives decisions, the insights gleaned from this constant vigilance are priceless.

Yet, these systems aren’t just passive observers. By harnessing the power of machine learning and predictive algorithms, they’re actively forecasting the future, identifying potential threats long before they manifest. This isn’t just a win for engineers, who can intervene with solutions in time; it’s a win for everyone who depends on these piers.

Embracing the Genius of Nature

Nature is, without a doubt, the world’s most seasoned engineer. Over countless millennia, through trial and error, it has carved out ingenious solutions to some of the toughest challenges. Take mangroves, for example. These aren’t merely trees sprouting from salty soils; they’re natural fortresses. Their sprawling roots are Earth’s original breakwaters, dissipating wave energy and shielding coasts from erosion. And as if that wasn’t enough, they double up as carbon warriors, locking away greenhouse gases and helping counteract our carbon emissions.

And then there are oyster reefs, nature’s unsung heroes. These bustling communities do more than just churn out pearls and filter feed; they’re frontline defenders against wave onslaughts. Acting like organic speed bumps, they sap the energy of waves, ensuring calmer waters behind them. And yes, while they’re at it, they keep our waters pristine, filtering gallons upon gallons daily.

Marrying these natural marvels with our modern pier designs isn’t just an eco-conscious move; it’s smart engineering. Encouraging mangrove growth around piers or integrating oyster reefs not only taps into time-tested natural defenses but also promotes biodiversity.

Maintenance in the Age of Unpredictability

While innovations and nature-integrated designs can fortify our piers, consistent oversight remains indispensable. The unpredictable dance of climate change, with its bouts of storms, tidal surges, and other capricious acts, demands vigilance.

Routine isn’t a word that sounds exciting, but when it comes to maintenance checks, it’s the unsung hero. Scheduling these checks, aided by tech marvels like drones, underwater rovers, and sensors, gives us a panoramic view of a pier’s health. It’s about being proactive, catching the niggles before they morph into nightmares.


Climate changes compel us to re-envision structures like piers, not as static entities, but as dynamic, adaptable, and resilient entities. The journey ahead is not just about building with concrete, steel, or wood; it’s about weaving in the wisdom of algorithms, the genius of nature, and the dedication of regular oversight. The future of piers is as much a testament to human ingenuity as it is an ode to nature’s brilliance, leading us towards a sustainable and harmonious future. Let FoundationMD be a part of your saving the planet and your foundation plan. Get more information at FoundationMD.