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The challenge of protecting the coasts from climate change

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Rising sea levels, increasing water temperatures and extreme weather events are negatively affecting coastal areas and thus the millions of people and animal species that inhabit them.

The rise in temperatures as a result of a steady increase in greenhouse gas emissions has been the main cause of the climate change that is taking place on the planet over the last few decades. This causes some areas to be more affected than others, such as coastal areas.

Not in vain, it is on the coasts where the rise in sea level and the increase in water temperature is felt and suffered most. One of the consequences will be, for example, an erosive retreat of the beaches with a reduction in the total useful area or a displacement of them. This was highlighted by Pablo Cotarelo, Coordinator of the Impacts of Climate Change on the Coast Campaign, in the magazine El Ecologista.


Complicated challenges

This is a good example that shows the challenges we face as humans if we don’t want to lose much of the coastline, its biodiversity and other generally unknown functions.

The Climate Change Adaptation Platform in Spain (Plataforma sobre Adaptación al Cambio Climático en España) indicates the following as the main impact factors: “The rise in the average sea level, alterations to wind, current and swell patterns, changes in the frequency and intensity of storms and in the temperature and acidity of the water.” For all these reasons, they consider it of vital importance to evaluate each of them and to react proactively before the situation becomes unsolvable.

The dangers of climate change

Delving into the main dangers arising from climate change, in the National Climate Change Adaptation Plan 2021–2030 that has been implemented in Spain, they point to three main dangers that are directly related to the coastline: the rise in temperature of the sea water — it has increased on the Mediterranean coast by 0.34°C every decade since the beginning of the 1980s; the aforementioned rise of the average sea level; and the acidification of the sea waters, which entails a reduction in the marine life’s ability to calcify and form shells and calcareous skeletons.

This body follows the guidelines set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in a special report entitled Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, where they explain the current situation in detail as well as the challenges facing countries around the world.

Changes observed

The IPCC paper points to a number of changes that have been observed that are due to climate change:

  • The extent of the cryosphere has shrunk, with a loss of a mass of ice sheets and glaciers, and the temperature of permafrost (permanent ice) has increased.
  • The oceans have been experiencing an unrelenting temperature rise since 1970 and have probably absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat in the climate system than their intensity. This has caused the acidification mentioned above, as there is less oxygen on its surface.
  • The average sea level is increasing, especially due to the loss of ice from Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets. This has led some researchers to claim that half of the sandy beaches in the world could disappear before 2100. Although they were subsequently challenged on the grounds that these beaches would actually gain meters on land, it remains less true that beaches that are surrounded by cliffs or seawalls will probably cease to exist.

Significant impacts

The report goes on to explain the main impacts that this development is causing, that is, the situations that must be remedied before they become irreversible:

  • Land and freshwater species and ecosystems have been affected, especially in the polar and high mountain regions. This has disrupted some seasonal activities, as well as the population and distribution of some plant and animal species. Certain areas that previously remained frozen have now come to the “surface.”
  • Ocean warming and changes in sea ice have also meant that many marine species have had to adapt — by migrating, changing habitats, etc. For example, according to a report published by the newspaper El País, Oxford University Biology professor Alex Rogers explained that fish stocks will move toward the poles to find their preferred temperatures. He outlined that this will particularly affect tropical countries in terms of fishing, but in Europe we have seen mackerel and cod moving north. In addition, this specialist pointed out that fish also become smaller as temperatures increase.
  • All of this will have a direct impact on the human population living on the coasts (and to a lesser extent on that further inland). A good example is fishing, which continues to provide a living for many communities around the world. However, it is not alone in being affected: the rise in sea level will jeopardize some urban areas as well. The increase in extreme climatic phenomena will cause great losses wherever they occur, and some inland areas will experience a gradual desertification.

A major challenge

Reacting to all this is therefore essential and a great challenge for humankind, which has not always made the effort to protect coastal environments. This is reflected by the environmental organization Greenpeace, which emphasizes the value of coastal ecosystems, since they provide humans with key environmental goods and services for economic and social development, such as food security, R&D and tourism.

They add that they are also a lifeline in order that we can adapt to the impacts of climate change on the coast, in the context of extreme weather events. They generate rain to slow the progress of droughts, while acting as flood buffers and controlling soil erosion. The well-being of millions of people depends on coastal ecosystems, and the goods and services they provide us with are the foundation for sustaining human life.

Everything leads to one path

At this point, it is worth asking what can be done to prevent the deterioration of the coasts caused by climate change. The most widespread response is to focus on stopping it as much as possible, as it is the cause of many ills affecting the environment.

The IPCC itself believes that “enabling climate resilience and sustainable development depends critically on urgent and ambitious emissions reductions coupled with coordinated sustained and increasingly ambitious adaptation actions.” To this end, the government authorities of the various states and, of course, of the supranational bodies must take action to ensure that they do not spare any effort because without their support, the deterioration will not stop.

Education and climate literacy, monitoring and forecasting, use of all available knowledge sources, sharing of data, information and knowledge, finance, addressing social vulnerability and equity, and institutional support are also essential,” they add.

Thus, the challenge of protecting the coasts from climate change can only be overcome by acting in a coordinated and conscientious manner, while treating it with the importance of something that can endanger millions of lives worldwide.