‘Where’s the Beach?!’

Sea Level Rise Is Coming, and the World’s Beaches Will Suffer

On World Oceans Day, Kiley Kroh breaks down what sea level rise means for one of Americans’ favorite vacation spots.

An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's Queensland state is seen in this September 2001 photo. The Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, could be destroyed from ocean acidification and rising sea levels. (AP/Queensland Tourism)
An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's Queensland state is seen in this September 2001 photo. The Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, could be destroyed from ocean acidification and rising sea levels. (AP/Queensland Tourism)

When Snooki of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” infamously stumbled down the boardwalk and confused onlookers by asking “where’s the beach?”, it inadvertently might have been the most insightful thing the reality star has ever said. A report issued last month by the International Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, or IAMAP, predicts a global sea level rise of up to five feet by 2100—far greater than the levels presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. The effect on our beloved beaches in the coming decades will be dramatic and devastating if these predictions come to pass.

For countless Americans, summer and beach go hand in hand. In fact, every year there are more than 2 billion visitors to America’s coastal, gulf, and inland beaches—twice as many visitors as all of the country’s national parks combined. And just in case the mere thought of lounging in the sand or splashing in the waves doesn’t have you ready to jump out of your chair, the newly released National Geographic photo spread on America’s top 10 beaches of 2011 ought to do the trick.

Along with the opportunity for some summertime R&R, our shorelines serve as storm surge mitigators, nurseries for countless species of fish and invertebrates, and the economic lifeblood of coastal communities. But the world’s beaches are far from everlasting, and the damaging effects of climate change are already being felt.

Today’s celebration of World Oceans Day provides an opportunity to review the dangers facing the world’s shores and offer some possible solutions.

Rising seas threaten our beaches

The first images that may come to mind when thinking about beach threats might be the recent jellyfish stinging spree off the coast of Florida or sharks shutting down beaches in the Hamptons. But the greatest threats to our beaches are slower moving and far more catastrophic.

Climate change is melting polar ice, which adds to the volume of the oceans and raises the temperature of the water, causing it to expand. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, rising sea levels inundate wetlands and other low-lying areas, erode beaches, intensify flooding, and increase the salinity of rivers, bays, and groundwater tables, choking freshwater plants and wildlife and threatening drinking water supplies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea level rise could convert as much as 33 percent of the world’s coastal wetlands to open water by 2080. And this appears to be a dramatic understatement based on the IAMAP report. In other words, entire ecosystems will literally disappear.

Jim Titus, director of the Sea Level Rise project at the EPA, and a team of contractors spent the past decade creating a model of how rising sea levels will impact the Eastern Seaboard. His findings are the most comprehensive analysis to date—and they are shocking.

A three-foot rise in sea level—barely half of the IAMAP’s latest prediction—would push back East Coast shorelines an average of 300 to 600 feet in the next 90 years, “threatening to submerge densely developed areas inhabited by some 3 million people, including large parts of New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.”

These inundations aren’t limited to the United States, either. This week, The Telegraph released a list of the top five Australian landmarks threatened by climate change. The Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and the world-renowned Bondi beach could be destroyed from ocean acidification and rising sea levels.

The Caribbean, the world’s most tourist-dependent region, is also starting to notice the effects of climate change. The region is experiencing coral bleaching, erratic weather patterns, and coastal erosion as a result of more intense storms and rising sea levels. The threat these changes pose to tourism alone would be crippling for the Caribbean and several other island nations that depend on the industry to drive their economies.

The response

What, if anything, can be done about these dire predictions? The debate over how best to prepare for or mitigate the effects of rising sea levels is contentious at best since the cost associated with many projects is extremely high and the benefits difficult to quantify.

The American Shore and Beach Preservation Association touts beach restoration as a reasonable first response to rising seas, at least in areas where abandoning the coast is simply not feasible or practical. They note that “a higher and wider beach keeps waves away from valuable coastal structures and infrastructure in the face of gradually rising seas, allowing time for a long-term response to be formulated as the actual impact of actual sea level rise (as opposed to widely divergent projections) is assessed.”

Beach renourishment has had some success but such projects are a massive investment and ultimately temporary in nature. It’s almost like building a sand castle and hoping it survives high tide. While small steps can be taken—such as Canadian students planting natural grasses to help fight erosion—rising sea levels need to be met with anticipatory and adaptive coastal policy.

There are glimmers of hope. In recent years, several states have begun to adopt more forward-thinking policies on coastal development. Maine and Rhode Island in particular have limited development near tidal waters as a direct response to sea level rise.

In the Mid-Atlantic, Gov. Martin O’Malley and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources took significant measures to begin to address these challenges well ahead of other states in the region. They followed the recommendations of a report released by the Maryland Commission on Climate Change detailing the necessary steps to protect the state from global warming and rising sea levels. Maryland passed one state law limiting development along the Chesapeake Bay and another requiring waterfront areas to have living shorelines comprised of grasses and rocks rather than hard structures like bulkheads or seawalls. Replacing hard structures with organic buffers prevents a simple redirection of ocean energy and affiliated erosion. It also protects habitat and wildlife by giving ecosystems the opportunity to migrate inland.

And Texas is an example of how the inadvertent consequences of a law can actually prove beneficial for the long-term outlook of a state’s coasts. The state’s Open Beaches Act established beaches as a public resource that must be protected from “erosion caused by development.” As Mother Jones observes, the law enjoys widespread support—partially because it ensures beach access for ATVs—while also offering some less-evident rewards for the Texas coastline. The Open Beaches Act and similar laws have the potential to be effective instruments of change because they contain “unintended environmental benefits, ensuring that beaches can migrate inland instead of being walled off and at the same time, it sidesteps any debate over climate change.”

To be sure, the cost of preparing for the impacts of climate change on coastal communities may be a tough pill for cash-strapped states to swallow. But the cost of inaction is far higher.

The bipartisan American Security Project recently issued a series of 50 reports entitled “Pay Now, Pay Later: A State by State Assessment of the Impact of Climate Change.” The forecast in California, for example, is alarming. The sea level along the 1,100 miles of California’s coast has risen about seven inches in the past century and it is projected to rise an additional 22 to 35 inches by 2100. Many of the state’s iconic beaches will disappear and the response is projected to cost Californians up to $30 billion over the last 30 years of the century.

While these dire predictions may seem like a scene from Kevin Costner’s epic film, “Waterworld,” the problem is quite real. The effects of our changing oceans are already washing up on coastal communities worldwide. It’s time to get serious about climate change and progressive coastal policy if you enjoy your days at the beach and don’t want Snooki’s personal nightmare to quickly become a reality for all of us.

Kiley Kroh is Associate Director for Ocean Communications at American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Kiley Kroh

Senior Editor, ThinkProgress

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