Magazine article E Magazine

Disappearing Coastlines: The Impacts of Climate Change Are Already Being Felt by Coastal Communities across the World

Magazine article E Magazine

Disappearing Coastlines: The Impacts of Climate Change Are Already Being Felt by Coastal Communities across the World

Article excerpt

Sea-level rise may be the most tangible aspect of climate change, something we can immediately see and document. Water expands as it warms, contributing to rising seas, and melting glaciers lead to higher sea levels, too. Research suggests that by 2100, sea levels will rise between 2 and 5.2 feet. I decided to found an organization that would embark on an expedition tracing 28,000 miles along the Atlantic coastline to see firsthand what changes were happening to coastal communities across the world. After consultation with climate scientists, co-founders Tim Bromfield, Will Lorimer and I plotted our route following the three-foot contour line around the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. In effect, we were tracing what might be the ocean's new coastline in 2100 and exploring what stands to be lost if sea levels continue to rise. The expedition and teaching organization called Atlantic Rising (atlanticrising.org) took us to 21 countries in 15 months.

One of the first countries on our route was Mauritania in West Africa, where the Banc d'Arguin National Park stretches along much of the coastline. It is a vast, sandy flatland where the Sahara meets the Atlantic that's home to a few isolated fishing communities and is the stopping point for millions of migratory birds each year. Some birds come to the park to refuel, feeding on fish living among the sea grasses in the shallow water. For others such as spoonbills--long-legged wading birds with distinctive paddle-shaped bills--this is their breeding ground, and they build their nests on the park's small islands. These nests are increasingly being washed away. On one island, Nair, which has been reduced in size by half over the last 10 years, ornithologists working in the park are trying to protect the bird population by building nesting platforms a few feet high where the birds' eggs will be protected from the rising tide.

It's even harder for the local fishing communities to adapt to rising tides. Buildings are washed out to sea, and sea grass growth is impeded, which in turns affects the fish population. For these fishermen, an already marginal existence is becoming increasingly more difficult. Antonio Araujo, director of the Fondation Internationale du Banc d'Arguin's (lafiba.org) conservation program, has noticed the sea level rise over the past decade he's worked in the park. "The catastrophe that is approaching us is a reality now," he says.

He adds that bird conservation projects in the northern hemisphere are pointless without conservation of wintering grounds. "If the Banc is lost, 40%-50% of the waders of the Palaearctic [the largest of the world's eight ecozones] will disappear," Araujo says.

Coastlines in Crisis

As of 2007, some 634 million people (roughly one in 10) lived in low-elevation coastal areas--areas that are directly impacted by sea-level rise. This includes 13% of the world's urban populations, and those city-dwelling masses have been on a steady rise since, particularly in Asia. A related report in the publication Environment and Urbanization noted that: "Both urban disasters and environmental hot spots are already located disproportionately in low-lying coastal areas. Climate change will increase the risk of both. In particular, rising sea levels will increase the risk of floods, and stronger tropical storms may further increase the flood risk. Low-income groups living on flood plains are especially vulnerable."

In Liberia's capital, Monrovia, an entire slum called West Point sprung up on a sand bank. About 60,000 people built homes on a piece of sand between the river mouth and the ocean. …

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