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Climate Change Could Eventually Mean the End of Beach Season

Kate Zerrenner headshotWords by Kate Zerrenner
Energy & Environment
Climate Change

Beach season is just around the corner, but your favorite sandy spot may not be around too much longer if climate change has anything to do with it.

A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that half of the world’s sandy beaches could disappear by 2100. If that seems too far off on the time horizon to worry about, consider that about 15 percent of those beaches already face severe erosion and could be gone by 2050. If you live in Australia, the U.S., Mexico or the Caribbean, that timeline could be even shorter.

The study sets the erosion limit at 100 meters, and when looking at threatened beaches, the impacts could become severe in many of the world’s most densely-populated areas. Regions including the eastern seaboard of the U.S., Southeast Asia and Central Europe are within that range — meaning they are at risk of having no more beaches for summer sunbathing.

Several causes of beach erosion exist, including natural wave erosion and geology (beaches naturally shift over time), coastal development, dams and damaging storms. But none of those factors pose the same level of threat as rising sea levels, especially when coupled with the fact that climate change is causing storms to become more intense and damaging. It’s food for thought, especially since beach season squarely lines up with hurricane season, which starts on June 1.

Texas is a microcosm of coastal erosion problems

Cameron County, Texas, is the state’s southernmost county and one of the poorest in the country, with a poverty rate of around 28 percent (compared to the U.S. national average of 11.8 percent). But this area is also home to one Texas’ most popular beach destinations: South Padre Island (SPI).

SPI is home to less than 1 percent of Cameron County’s population, but contributes around 5 percent of the county’s total economic output. However, Cameron County’s beaches are also eroding at an alarming rate. Near the mouth of the Rio Grande, where the river ends at the Gulf of Mexico, beaches are eroding by more than 20 feet per year. And while Houston scored most of the national media attention after Hurricane Harvey, the southern counties in Texas are still reeling from floods in the two years since. Texas overall has more federally-recognized disaster declarations than any other state, and averages a hurricane every three years.

Coastal erosion results in the loss of tourism dollars worldwide as well as all the ancillary economic benefits associated with tourism. For example, one study put economic losses related to coastal erosion for the Hoi An region in Vietnam at $29 million by 2040. The U.S. government estimates that coastal property losses in the U.S. are already costing $500 million per year. When compounded with the fact that those most unable to bounce back from the impact of coastal erosion are the poorest and most vulnerable populations, inland areas may have to contend with an influx of people from coastal areas.

The threat to beach season and climate change: what can be done?

These figures are daunting, but there is some room for hope. A two-pronged approach could help mitigate some of the worst impacts. Resilience and adaptation strategies are needed to deal with the current and recent issues facing coastal communities, such as building natural infrastructure (as opposed to dams or sea walls, which may offer a short- to medium-term solution, but are costly and not as effective for long-term resilience to increasingly intense storms). Also, better flood plain maps and stricter building codes in coastal areas are essential for resilience.

The second prong is taking substantive action on climate change. The Nature Climate Change study found that by limiting carbon emissions, predicted coastal erosion could be reduced by 17 percent by 2050 and by 40 percent by 2100. That is significant, not only for those of us who live inland and visit beaches, but the communities that live in and around beaches all over the world. Some loss will happen, but smart climate and resilience policies can minimize those losses, to the benefit of us all.

Image credit: City of South Padre Island/Facebook

Kate Zerrenner headshotKate Zerrenner

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

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