Beach Daze: With Rising Seas, Sand Now Bad Place to Hide Head

, Senior analyst, Climate & Energy | July 10, 2012, 11:02 am EDT
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 This past weekend, while I watched my kids frolic in the surf out of one eye, I was scrutinizing the beachfront housing stock with the other – like an insurance adjustor, contemplating storm surge, flooding, and other flavors of catastrophe. Could be I just don’t know how to have a good time. Or could be that I’m freshly returned from the Florida Sea-Level Rise Summit where scientists say things like “friends, the sky is not falling, but the seas truly are rising.”

The Reach of the Beach

In the heat of summer, those of us blessed by proximity and leisure time go to the beach. We go to have fun and relax and flee the heat, like the scorching temperatures across much of the country recently. Whole families jam 4-lane highways and crowd paved parking lots, we fill beachfront hotels and rental cottages, we spill onto the soft sand and into the surf, and we breathe a collective sigh of relief: ah, the cool, constant, timeless sea, here to restore us and wash us of our cares… (You know where I’m going with this.)

The Place to Be: Americans pay millions of visits to the beach each summer. (Credit: Brent Danley)

We know on one level that where that soft sand meets that rough surf is a changeable zone. We see the punctuated evidence after every big storm, and if we look back at old photos of the coasts, we see great, if gradual change. (Cue the foreboding string section.) What we need to come to terms with now (as in NOW; check your local news, the recent coverage of risks and new science is pretty widespread; read anything?) are the new and amplified dynamics at play along our coasts – ones that could fundamentally reshape our shores and coastal communities.

The Motion of the Ocean

With warming, expanding oceans, and melting land-based ice, global sea level has been rising and at an increasing pace. This trend means that – no matter what certain state legislatures have to say on the matter – many low-lying areas, like parts of Miami, or the Outer Bank, or Chesapeake Bay, could face inundation. Some places are flooded today during extreme high tides – maybe you know some? As sea level continues to rise, such places are poised to be flooded during normal high tides; and in the future, vulnerable parts of our coastline may simply slip beneath the sea.

This trend also means that coastal storms – whether or not they are more frequent or intense – can be more damaging simply by having more water to pound against the shore. And it means that some places are now working hard to prepare while also planning for serious loss – and that coastal communities not currently looking at their own risk should start.

Miami, 2010: Flooding during extreme high tides can offer a glimpse of places at risk of more regular inundation in the years ahead. (Credit: Miami-Dade County Permitting, Envi & Reg Affairs)

The Worry and the Hurry

At the Sea-Level Rise Summit, the official from the Florida Keys spoke of the projected loss of much of Big Pine Key in the next few decades, the potential flooding of large areas of Key West this century, and the puzzle of what to do with the endangered Key Deer, which lives nowhere but these islands. Even for someone like me who cares greatly about climate change, it’s been lingering for the most part on the horizon, but something snapped into place as I listened to Floridians talk shop on coastal impacts and adaptation. In the U.S. state with the largest number of people living in exposed, coastal communities, these are neither minor nor distant future impacts – they’re huge, here, and a new part of the job.

Florida Key Sea-Level Rise: These maps of Big Pine Key compare sea level in 2007 with end-of-century sea level under the IPCC (2007) lower-emissions scenario. In 2011, the “Unified SE FL Sea Level Rise Projection” anticipated this kind of sea-level rise in the next several decades. (Map credit: TNC)

The colossal challenge of responding to sea-level rise is no longer a question of avoidance but one of containment. (Even if we stopped all heat-trapping emissions tomorrow, the inertia in the system would ensure the seas go on rising for many, many years.) So how hard will we work to slow and contain this problem? On day two of the Sea-Level Rise Summit, Ben Strauss of Climate Central invoked iconic historical moments like Washington crossing the Delaware to help the audience appreciate today’s decisions as pivotal for centuries to come. True enough. What emerging science tells us, as well, is that we don’t have to feel a strong affinity for the people of 2300 A.D. to really care about this issue. The problem is upon us. An affinity for the local beach on a summer day will do.

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  • Roberta Dees

    I have been recycling for almost 50 years – we passed the Clean Air Act in the 70’s – what happened?

  • Dave

    I am concerned that, like the alcoholic who refuses to acknowledge his problem until the day he declares himself a “lost cause,” too many Americans are going directly from denial to resignation on matters related to climate change, skipping over the messy middle part where they actually have to “try” or “reflect” or “make an effort to change.” Many people have talked about our country’s “addiction” to foreign oil, but in truth the addiction is much broader — to a lifestyle that is dependent in many ways (large and small) on fossil fuels and a political & economic sphere that revolves around keeping those fuels cheap and readily available. How do we fight human nature on this? Do this summer’s calamities and the drumbeat of important pieces like this one eventually amount to an “intervention” or wake-up call for our leaders and ourselves, or does the reality of locked-in climate change and the (necessary) emphasis on adaptation give us a new excuse for inaction? We need to get to the middle part where we actually try. Thanks for reminding us!

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Dave, Thanks. I think these are extremely sharp insights into the heart of the challenge. How DO we fight — or better, work with — human nature on this. I guess it makes sense that we’re not well-wired to get in there and engage with seemingly-abstract problems of a global scale. What I find both terrible and hopeful about recent events (heat, drought, wildfires) is how they show that, actually, the problem is here, in our lives today, and that people are really getting the connection (see, e.g., Now, will we jump from denial to resignation? I almost wish this problem had precedent, so we could better understand the psychology and zeitgeist. But I have to believe that many changes we would be resigning ourselves to are too dangerous for us to accept, AND that the sheer abundance of opportunities for stemming the problem – from the personal scale (check out!) to national policy and everywhere in between – will grab enough people and keep us, as you put it, “in the middle part where we try”.

  • Deb Carey

    Thanks Erika.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Thanks for reading, Deb.

  • mary fitzgerald

    Record hot temperatures, wild fires and drought — welcome to Summer 2012. The terrifying thing is it’s only going to get worse, along with the loss of coast line and coastal islands due to rising seas. In view of all this, sometimes I feel like giving up and climbing into that big ole’ bubble of denial that so many other Americans — kind, decent and utterly oblivious — climbed into long ago. As I gaze into the future, and wonder what life will be like 20 or 30 years from now, it’s hard not to feel terribly depressed, especially in view of the fact that our federal government is utterly paralyzed by indecision and partisan politics, preventing our nation from taking the necessary cooperative steps with other nations to fight against climate change.

    How can we as progressives stay positive and continue to work on behalf of preventing a climate catastrophe?

    • Sandi Ratch

      I don’t think we can prevent catastrophe at this point. We now have to live with it and hope to manage it well enough to survive. We didn’t get the message soon enough. People STILL don’t. How is that possible? Well, I don’t know. But I totally understand the depression and anxiety about it. It’s terrifying!

      • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

        Sandi, Thanks for weighing in. I agree that we now have to get serious about adaptation, and it sure would’ve been helpful if everyone had gotten this message a couple of decades ago… But though we’re late to the game, there’s reason to believe we’re getting down to business, especially at the household, city and state levels. Take this example from Monday, when my colleague, Laura, wrote about the huge growth of CA household solar installations in areas with median incomes of $75k or less: I’m really optimistic that people are now getting it and that, AS they really get it, we’ll be in a position for big steps on the mitigation side in the next couple of years. Hang in there!

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Mary, You landed on a question I know a lot of people grapple with, myself included. But thankfully staying positive and staying active are two different things. Even when I fail at the former, I can succeed at the latter, and there’s a positive feedback: staying in the game allows us to see the inspiring, meaningful change that’s really happening but doesn’t make the headlines. Here’s a blog post by a colleague that cites just a few of the million examples: And to be clear, yes, the science tells us there are some changes we can no longer avoid, and rising sea-level may be one of the most stark, but there’s still so much that’s in our hands. We need you, keep away from the bubble…