Beaches lost forever to sea level rise Written by Joe Patchett

Sandy beaches, which occupy more than one-third of global coastlines, could be gone by the end of your lifetime, leaving your children with the possibility of never experiencing a day at the beach, as imminent rises in sea level will totally submerge the majority of the world's beaches by 2100.

“Beaches are territories of dreams. They are our favorite refuges; they are a protectorate for the soul during spring, summer, autumn, and winter. They shed our tears, and they hear our pain.” – Unknown Author

A recent study estimates almost half of the world’s sandy beaches will have disappeared by 2100. These estimates are far from the most catastrophic, based on optimistic forecasts set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that would see a 50 cm rise in sea levels by the end of the century.

Other studies estimate a sea level rise of two meters is much more realistic because of the current inactivity from global powers and industries to reduce carbon emissions and limit global warming. Climate Central has helped visualise what such a future would look like for our coastlines if seas were to rise two meters with this interactive map.

Based on these estimates, Miami Beach would be completely underwater, as would Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach, Gold Coast in Australia, and Thailand's Maya Bay, made famous by the film The Beach, which was recently closed because of other environmental concerns caused by tourist visitors.

You might think these predictions to be dramatic and assume this will happen sometime in the distant future but beaches around the world are already being lost to climate change. The Mexican beach resort of Cancun has spent millions to dump imported sand for it only to wash away in the following months. Cancun is one example of many well-known beaches importing sand to replenish their disappearing beach in an endless cycle that destroys ecosystems and disproportionately benefits the rich coastal-dwellers.

Importing sand, or beach nourishment, has been a widely used practise since the early 1900s and has grown into a billion dollar industry. Today, sand is the second most exploited and consumed natural resource in the world, after fresh water. The U.S government alone has funded over $9 billion for beach nourishment projects.

Normally, beaches can survive by migrating landward and adapting to the changing sea levels. However, as Michalis Vousdoukas, a lead oceanographer at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission states, “When you have an occupied coastline and you have a sandy beach, the system cannot retreat naturally and accommodate the new conditions”. These beaches are unable to move because of human barriers like seawalls, roads, and buildings in their way, progressively inundating the beach in a process known as coastal squeeze. In Japan, over 43% of its coastline is lined with concrete seawalls or other structures.

Instead, natural solutions are far more sustainable means of protecting beaches rather than these ‘quick and dirty’ fixes. Conserving and restoring sand dunes, wetlands, and coral reefs protect our coastlines from rising seas and provide important storm protection for the 1 billion people who will live in the coastal zone by the end of the 21st century.

However, the real answer to saving our beaches is to drastically cut global emissions to prevent sea levels rising in the first place. “Moderate emissions mitigation could prevent 17% of the shoreline retreat in 2050 and 40% in 2100, thus preserving on average 42 metres of sand between land and sea,” Vousdoukas said. This is based on hitting the IPCC RCP4.5 target, which assumes global emissions start declining rapidly from 2040.

This gives us less than two decades, or five US presidential terms, to dramatically turn things around, but given the current idleness of many world leaders, your future vacations may need to be rethought. Committed immediate action is needed to save our beaches.