- Sea level rise threatens half of the world’s sandy beaches, a study has found.
- One of the study’s authors suggests this is a conservative estimate.
- Up to 40 per cent of the losses can be prevented by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientists say that half of the world’s sandy beaches could disappear by the end of the century if climate change continues unchecked.
Researchers at the European Union’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, used satellite images to track the way beaches have changed over the past 30 years and simulated how global warming might affect them in the future.
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“What we find is that by the end of the century around half of the beaches in the world will experience erosion that is more than 100 metres,” said Michalis Vousdoukas, one of the study’s authors. “It’s likely that they will be lost.”
The study, published on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that the extent to which beaches are at risk depends on how much average global temperatures increase by the year 2100. Greater temperature increases mean more sea level rise and more violent storms in some regions, causing more beaches to vanish beneath the waves.
“The projected shoreline changes will substantially impact the shape of the world’s coastline,” more than a third of which is sandy beach, the authors wrote.
Beaches are valuable for recreation, tourism and wildlife, while also providing a natural barrier that protects coastal communities from waves and storms. Many coastal areas, including beaches, are already heavily affected by human activity such as seashore construction and inland dams, which reduce the amount of silt flowing into oceans that’s crucial for beach recovery.
Some countries will be more affected than others, the researchers said. Gambia and Guinea-Bissau in west Africa could lose more than 60 per cent of their beaches, while predictions for Pakistan, Jersey and the Comoros islands are similarly dire.
Australia would be hardest-hit in terms of total beach coastline lost, with more than 7,000 miles at risk. The United States, Canada, Mexico, China, Russia, Argentina and Chile would also lose thousands of miles of beach, according to the study.
Andres Payo, an expert on coastal hazards and resilience at the British Geological Survey, said that while the study’s methods were sound, its claims should be treated with caution.
“There are many assumptions and generalisations that could change the outcome of the analysis both qualitatively and quantitatively,” said Payo, who was not involved in the study.
However, Vousdoukas said the amount of beach loss estimated by his team was in fact “a bit conservative” and could be higher.
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The group considered two different warming scenarios, one in which average global temperatures rise by 2.4°C by the end of the century and another that predicts an increase twice as high. The Paris climate accord’s most ambitious target, of capping warming at 1.5°C, was not considered because scientists consider it unlikely to be achieved, Vousdoukas said.
The study’s authors calculated that up to 40 per cent of shoreline retreat could be prevented by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change, but said that large and growing populations living along the coast will also need to be protected through other measures.
Citing the example of the Netherlands, which has battled the sea for centuries and even reclaimed substantial areas of low-lying land, the authors said “past experience has shown that effective site-specific coastal planning can mitigate beach erosion, eventually resulting in a stable coastline”.
Reader Q&A: Is sea level rise accelerating?
Asked by: Katie Ryan, London
Global sea levels rose by about 19cm from 1900 to 2010, creeping up by an average of 1.7mm a year. Since 1993, satellite measurements have allowed us to make more precise measurements of sea level change, showing that between 1993 and 2010, sea level increased by just over 3mm per year, almost double the average pace for the 20th Century.
As global temperatures continue to soar, scientists expect that sea level will rise at even faster rates in coming decades, resulting in a further increase in global sea level of up to 80cm by the end of the century.