Climate is changing the coastlines

 By Amanda Saint

The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has published a report looking at the likely impact of rising global temperatures on weather patterns and sea levels and the effects this will in turn have on the people that live on the 72,182 km long coastline of the region…

Research for the report was carried out by the Environmental Hydraulics Institute of the University of Cantabria, in association with the Ibero-American Programme on Adaptation to Climate Change. The researchers looked at the ways climate change will affect the oceans, the land bordering them, and the economic prospects of the people living in coastal areas of Mexico, Central, and South America and the Caribbean islands. This is more than 50 countries with a total combined population of more than 648 million in 2017, 27.4 million of which currently live at less than 10 meters above sea level.
So what can the people living in these regions expect?

Rising sea levels

The report highlights that the vast majority of climate change discussions focus on temporary coastal flooding that has usually been caused by extreme weather events taking sea levels up to unusual heights. But the long-term effects brought about climate change is that coastal flooding will be permanent, which is also known as submergence.
Studies of annual sea level rises since 2010 and forecasting to 2040, then from 2040 to 2070, show that they are clearly trending upward everywhere in the region. The biggest increases for the 2010-2040 period are along the Atlantic coast, with levels going up by around 3 mm a year along the northern coast of South America and the Caribbean coastline. From 2040-2070 this is expected to increase to 4 mm a year. Annual rises at these levels will have a huge impact on the coastline and the people living and working there, particularly when combined with more severe hurricanes and coastal storms.
The researchers have used models to show what the effects of a 1 meter sea level rise combined with a severe El Nino could do. The large urban population centers located along the coasts of Brazil would bear the brunt of this and there would be major disruptions. Other strongly impacted areas include the Caribbean islands, especially those further to the east, and large parts of the eastern coast of Mexico, areas in Peru and Ecuador, as well as many of the largest human settlements in Chile. Current storms already temporarily displace millions of people in these areas but the scenarios predicted by the models mean that by the end of the forecast period there would be no going back to huge numbers of the homes and businesses in these areas. The sea will claim them.

Beach erosion

Tourism is a big part of the economy for most of the countries in the region. Barbados, for example, has 12 percent of its GDP from tourism income and 12.3 percent of jobs are in the sector, countries such as Jamaica, Panama and Mexico are not far behind. Obviously much of this is driven by people looking to spend time on tropical white-sand beaches and swimming in turquoise tropical seas.
But are those beaches still going to be there?
The analysis shows that some of them are very unlikely to be with the assumed sea level rise of 1 meter. High rates of erosion are expected for the coasts of southern Brazil and southern Chile. On average, the beaches in the Gulf of Mexico are expected to recede by around 8 meters by 2040 and up to 16 meters by 2070. The northern Caribbean islands will also be badly affected, which includes Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas. All big beach holiday destinations.
What can the countries in this region do to try and manage the effects of these impacts?

Beach erosion effects on coast (Hillebrand Steve - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia)

Getting prepared

The World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery is funding a number of projects to help countries become more resilient and better prepared to deal with the risks posed by climate change.
These range from a study to understand how floods and droughts affect the well-being of poor Bolivian households to enhancing the institutional capacity of Uruguay’s meteorological agency (Instituto Uruguayo de Meteorologia – INUMET) to provide weather and climate information services to the population. The organization is also investing millions of dollars in developing new education policies and programs around disaster management in Jamaica, Peru and Brazil to put people in a better position to deal with the climate changing, and claiming, the coastlines where they live and work.
So while it won’t be possible to change the effects of climate change on the natural environment, steps are being taken to prepare countries in the region to adapt to a very different economy—one that will likely no longer rely so heavily on tourism.

SEE MORE: The vanishing islands of the Pacific by Amanda Saint

about the author
Amanda Saint
Journalist and content writer, specialised in engineering and technology with a focus on environmental sustainability, urbanisation and biotechnology.