Life under climate change will not be a beach.
In fact, future generations aren't likely to know many sandy beaches at all. By the year 2100, nearly half the world's sandy beaches are expected to fall victim to rising sea levels, according to the report published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.
But the feeling of sand between your toes, while basking in a coastal vista won't be the only thing notably absent by the end of this century. We'll also be missing crucial protection from the throes of the ocean.
In their study, researchers suggest the loss of those sandy swaths will leave humans and wildlife perilously vulnerable to storm surges and rising sea levels. A beach is, in fact, one of nature's most vital defenses against an unruly ocean, buffering the impact of extreme maritime events.
"Apart from tourism, sandy beaches often act as the first line of defence from coastal storms and flooding, and without them impacts of extreme weather events will probably be higher," lead author Michalis Vousdoukas, a researcher at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, tells AFP. "We have to prepare."
The slow march of coastal erosion
For the study, researchers at the European Union's Joint Research Center in Italy relied on satellite images to analyze three decades' worth of coastal changes. Then they used simulations to predict how those sandy coastlines would be altered by climate change.
The forecast called for concern.
"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," oceanographer Vousdoukas tells the Associated Press. "It's likely that they will be lost."
Not only will humans and animals be exposed, but the cost to fortify sandy coasts will, the researchers argue, grow too high to be economically feasible, especially considering the speed at which beaches are likely to be consumed.
Specifically, they note, it will take just 30 years for erosion to eat up roughly 22,430 miles of sandy beaches. But things will really accelerate in the latter half of this century, as nearly 60,000 more miles are devoured by the sea.
The country with the most to lose, they say, will be Australia which stands to lose about 9,000 miles of white-sand beaches. Canada, Chile, Mexico, Russia and the U.S. are also expected to see staggering losses.
Human action (or inaction) matters
Like many climate change stories, there's good news. And that good news is a familiar refrain: we may be able to avert a worst-case scenario by — surprise, surprise — changing our habits.
Specifically, the scientists point to the ravages of fossil fuels and their growing contribution to climate change. If greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, petroleum and natural gas continue unchecked, simulations point to a total loss of 49.5 percent of the world's sandy beaches.
On the other hand, if we can rein in temperature increases, keeping them at about 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, beach loss is projected at about 59,000 miles.
"Moderate emissions mitigation could prevent 17 percent of the shoreline retreat in 2050 and 40 percent in 2100, thus preserving on average 42 metres of sand between land and sea," the scientists note in the study.
That's still a lot of beach. And at this point, we need to hold on to every grain of sand we can.