BERLIN—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 Center 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.
“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 meters,” said Michalis Vousdoukas. “It’s likely that they will be lost.”
The study, published recently 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 percent of their beaches, while predictions for Pakistan, the island of Jersey in the English Channel and the Comoros islands are similarly dire.
Australia would be hardest-hit in terms of total beach coastline lost, with over 11,400 kilometers (7,080 miles) at risk.
The United States, Canada, Mexico, China, Russia, Argentina and Chile would also lose thousands of kilometers (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 generalizations that could change the outcome of the analysis both qualitatively and quantitatively,” said Payo, who wasn’t 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.
The group considered two different warming scenarios—one in which average global temperatures rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3 Fahrenheit) 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˚Celsius, wasn’t considered because scientists consider it unlikely to be achieved, Vousdoukas said.
The study’s authors calculated that up to 40 percent 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.”
Sandy beaches comprise about a third of the world’s coastline, which would be eroded by 40 meters to 250 meters under the worst-case scenario, assuming there were no physical limits such as sea walls. The effect would be more noticeable in the latter decades of this century, and would continue well into the next.
The study used several new databases, including recent shoreline movement that may already be affected by increases in sea levels and may lead to an overestimate, according to John Church, chair professor at the University of New South Wales’s Climate Research Centre.
“Regardless of the exact numbers reported in this study, it’s clear we will have to adapt to the beach erosion that we can no longer prevent, if we are to continue enjoying our beaches,” he said. “And if we are to continue to enjoy our sandy beaches into the future, we cannot allow ongoing and increasing greenhouse-gas emissions.”
AP and Bloomberg News
Image credits: AP/Michael Probst