Yet for Howard and other scientists, it's the absence of homes, roads, shops, amusements, and marinas - of anything, really - that makes Little Beach Island invaluable.
The 1,100-acre Atlantic County island, which has never had any beach replenishment, serves as a kind of Petri dish for those concerned with sand accretion, climate change, and the effect of tides and storms on more developed portions of the coastline.
They can observe the island's shoreline and inlets "in a way that you cannot do on barrier islands anywhere else in New Jersey, or along the East Coast for that matter," said Stewart Farrell, an expert on coastal erosion and head of operations at the field station, located in Port Republic.
As a Stockton doctoral student, Howard spent more than a year gathering data about Atlantic County's "lost island" - six miles long and a mile wide - where no one has lived for five decades and few are permitted even to set foot.
His findings showed that Little Beach Island could not have sustained the development that speculators once fantasized about without the massive beach replenishment that has occurred elsewhere on New Jersey's 127-mile coast in the last 30 years.
Also, they demonstrated how quickly things can happen, geologically speaking, when nature is left to its own devices.
Using topographical data and surveys dating to 1903 and aerial photographic studies from the last 40 years, Howard saw that sand from the island's southern beaches and high dunes had migrated, changing the northern shoreline.
Between 1903 and 2010, the shoreline has "advanced," or widened, by 1,137 feet, Howard said.
That is the opposite of what has happened at other barrier-island locations, such as Ocean City and Sea Isle City. There, storms and wave action move sand southward, plumping Wildwood's already fat strands. The anomaly may be the result of local water currents, according to Howard.
"You can see dramatic changes over what is a relatively short period of time . . . shorter than you might expect," he said.
That pace may be quickening, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Geological Survey. Sea level is rising three to four times faster off highly populated sections of the Northeastern United States than it is globally, possibly due to climate change, the agency found.
Between New England and North Carolina, coastal cities, beaches, and wetlands are increasingly vulnerable to flooding, especially from storm surges, according to the study.
Farrell, Howard's colleague, fell under the spell of Little Beach Island in 1966. The island, part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, was the subject of his dissertation as well.
Over about 20 years, the island has experienced a dramatic flattening of its dunes and a depletion of its forests, he said. Trees that were once inland are now at water's edge. Marshland has been eroded and exposed by the encroaching Atlantic. On the north side, a body of water he and his graduate students dubbed Whitman Inlet, for the then-governor, is now "a vast sand plain," Farrell said.
Loss of dunes, beach erosion, and other changes to Little Beach Island are worrisome to Joel Fogel, a Coast Guard-licensed ship captain and chairman of the Philadelphia chapter of the renowned Explorers Club. The changes are a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere, he says.
Several times a year, the Somers Point resident takes his boat to the island, where his family hiked and fished in the 1970s. Such activities are no longer permitted on the protected land, where researchers must apply for the two or three federal permits granted each year, officials said.
"Other barrier islands along the coast are so populated and full of infrastructure that you can't see the subtle changes that occur," said the captain, who guided his 17-foot skiff along the southern tip of the island on a recent trip.
Except for a grove of chokecherry trees and some mostly flattened dunes, there was nothing on the island to greet Fogel's passengers. A fire in the 1970s razed the remnants of a small 1890s Coast Guard station and the few makeshift cottages that had sprung up around it. Utility poles that as recently as seven years ago stuck out of dunes, an eerie reminder that a few humans once inhabited the place, were done in by Hurricane Irene and other recent storms.
Over the last 130 years, Little Beach Island has occasionally found itself the focus of development plans.
In 1882, a group of land speculators drew up plans for a resort on the island. But the financial panic of 1884 caused investment money to dry up, Farrell said.
Development was on the horizon again between 1912 and 1914, in the pre-Garden State Parkway era, when another investment group decided it would help fund creation of a road through the Pinelands, offering a direct route - what became Route 539 - between central New Jersey and the shoreline at Tuckerton. A series of bridges would have brought vacationers to Brigantine's doorstep. But the plan was shelved when steel became scarce during World War I and such projects became secondary concerns.
Plans regained momentum during the 1920s, but the Great Depression struck. By 1933, the development company was selling its assets, including Little Beach Island, to stay afloat.
By World War II, the island was in government hands. In the 1970s, it became part of Forsythe.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo
at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at www.philly.com/downashore.