If you were hoping to head to the beach until the climate catastrophe blows over, think again. Around half of the world’s sandy beaches could be gone by the end of this century if climate change is left unchecked, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
The new research used 35 years of satellite coastal observations, paired with over 80 years of climate and sea-level rise projections, to predict how our planet’s coastlines fare over the next 80 years.
Their models suggest that up to 50 percent of the world’s sandy beaches could be gone if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut and continue to creep upwards. Even within 30 years, by the year 2050, around 14 percent of the world’s sandy beaches could face severe degradation.
However, there is a slither of hope: a “moderate emission mitigation policy,” whereby greenhouse gas emissions are slashed and peak by 2040, would prevent 40 percent of the projected erosion.
The severity of “beach extinction” will be experienced differently across the world. For example, the risk of erosion is particularly high in certain countries under both climate scenarios, including the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, where over 60 percent of sandy coastlines are likely to be lost. Other countries that are expected to bear some of the most profound changes include Australia, Canada, Chile, Mexico, China, the US, Russia, and Argentina.
“While some parts of sandy coastlines will grow, many countries will have 80 percent of their sandy coastlines affected by erosion. The latter countries where sandy beaches are important tourist attractions will face the major negative socio-economic impacts. Countries like Australia and the USA have a large proportion of sandy beaches and will see large changes,” explained Dr Suzana Ilic, senior lecturer at the Lancaster Environment Centre of Lancaster University, who wasn’t directly involved with the new study.
Indeed, many of these changes are already being felt. Previous research showed that nearly a quarter of sandy beaches worldwide are currently eroding at a rate of over 0.5 meters (1.6 feet) per year, accounting for over 28,000 square kilometers (10,800 square miles) of beach that have already been lost to the sea.
Sandy beaches line around a third of the world’s coastlines. They are especially vulnerable to changes in sea level as they will degrade within years or decades of sea-level rise, compared to cliffs or rocky coastlines that can take decades or centuries to respond.
Many sandy beaches are also near to highly populated areas – some 10 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas – and serve as important hubs for recreation, tourism, and industry. This is not even considering their invaluable role as a habitat for wildlife. On top of that, beaches also provide natural barriers against marine storms and cyclones.
So if these gorgeous ecosystems start to crumble, it will be a lot more severe than a few homeless crabs and a ruined holiday.