The future is... fewer beaches

Tourists swim, sunbathe and relax along Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Kai Ryssdal: The planet's getting warmer. That much isn't really in doubt. But, c'mon. We've got debt crises all over the place, unemployment up to here, and a housing market still not going anywhere. So something like climate change that won't really bite us for what -- another 20 or 30 years -- how much does it matter right now? Depends on where you live.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk and the Aloha State, Adriene Hill reports.

Adriene Hill: Some of Hawaii's beaches are pristine -- white sand, blue waves, space to contemplate the beauty of the world and relax. Ahh...

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Oh yeah. Sorry. And then there are other beaches a little less idyllic. Take Waikiki -- tourists in sarongs and leis, reeking of coconut-scented sunscreen all jammed together. A couple sitting too close to the water scrambles from a wave. The beach is washing away.

Chip Fletcher: Waikiki is suffering from erosion and there is a lot of concern on how to manage this problem.

Chip Fletcher teaches oceanography and earth science at the University of Hawaii. The sea is rising here. And with it, Hawaii's beaches are eroding, 70 percent of them chronically. Sea level has been rising in Hawaii at a fairly steady rate for the last century. And Fletcher expects to see that rate accelerate in the near future -- as the effects of climate change kick in. He's drawing up models for what a meter of sea level rise in the next century would look like.

Fletcher: This problem of managing eroding beaches is going to become more difficult and presumably more expensive. So simplistically, if we are re-nourishing Waikiki beach, say every 5-10 years, that schedule will have to accelerate if we want to continue to maintain a beach there.

It'll cost millions to keep Waikiki sandy. The state's going to pay for some of it. Hotels are chipping in, too. They have to dredge sand from offshore and dump it on the beach. But letting Waikiki disappear would be disaster for Hawaii's economy.

Robbie Kane: Tourism for Hawaii is our number one industry. It's our biggest economic factor here. It's critical to the well-being of the future for all of Hawaii.

Robbie Kane is with the state tourism board. She says the office commissioned a study -- on the economic impact of letting the beach at Waikiki disappear.

Kane: The estimates from that study talked about losing nearly $2 billion in revenues every year and losing over 6,000 jobs if we didn't have sandy beach in Waikiki.

But not every beach is as important as Waikiki. And the state has limited funding.

Sam Lemmo: We need to look at some priorities. I look at is as triage. What beaches can we save for the next generation and which beaches are going to be difficult to save?

Sam Lemmo heads the state office of conservation and coastal lands. He says it's important for people to start thinking about these things now -- building away from the erosion zone, planning better for the wetter future, understanding what sea level rise might mean both to the economy and to them. His office has created sea-level projection plans for some individual communities and home owners.

Lemmo: Because in some cases the sea level might be in your living room in the next 50-100 years and we show that in maps.

Lemmo says it seems like more people are listening and paying attention now. They're starting to believe in climate change and sea level rise. But the knowledge doesn't make the answers any easier.

Lemmo: This is their life, this is their thing they are going to leave to their children, this is their heritage. And you're telling them that it's going to be underwater effectively in 100 years. I can't even describe all of the complex thoughts that might go through somebody's mind regarding that problem.

Unfortunately, it's a problem that's just beginning.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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The island of Oahu was at one time the 'Big Island'! It is smaller in size due to natural movement and volcanic activity, NOT the cooling/warming of the earth. Drudging up sand is not going to help keep the shoreline safe. The residents of the other islands need to keep this in mind once Hilo is the next capital. Perhaps one thousand years in the future.

I think it's important to add that in addition to bringing sand dredged off-shore, a more recent development, Hawaii has a history of taking sand from less affluent areas/islands such as Molokai. A real shame considering that some of their more beautiful beaches are sacrificed for Waikiki, an ugly, overbuilt, over-crowded mess (literally and figuratively if you consider all the liter).

Hey, guess what? Under relentless assault by turbulent ocean and atmosphere, volcanic islands erode. They always have and always will. Look at the Marshall Islands. The vast majority of the peaks in the fabulous Hawaiian archipelago are already under water. Everybody panic!

Lemmo says, "This is their life, this is their thing they are going to leave to their children, this is their heritage." What this story doesn't share is the fact that many beaches are traditional burial grounds for Native Hawaiian people. We're not just talking about the loss of sandy beaches for sun-hungry tourists and landowners. We're talking about loss of land that is an integral part of the rich cultural heritage of the Hawaiian islands.

Thanks for this story. While our governments, corporations, and citizenry have decided to put off the looming effects of climate change into the not-too distant future of 2050, the effects are occurring now. And, real estate and tourism are going to be the least of our problems. Will we be ready for the first flood of climate refugees by 2020? or sooner? or will we continue to dawdle as a civilization on this topic until it's too late? Unlike the Clean Air and Water Act, by the time the veritable "river is on fire" moment comes to wake us up, the whole world will be that "river".

The report implies (or so I thought) that we can something about the climate change/perhaps man-made (let's not go there), but it also states that the water level has been going up for a century... so, which one is it?

Governments & corporations might put the beach back, but for lowlander individuals I'm inspired to offer one word of advice: MOVE! ...And have I got a real-estate deal for you!

Pardon the pun, but that was some shallow reporting on a deep issue for those of us who are not corporations with the benefit of having States support us though this crisis because of the potential loss of tax and tourism revenue. We are hard working people with mortgages on property on eroding shorelines. For us, this is not "news" but a very stressful situation without answers. In recent years, I have seen property owners whose homes were swallowed by the sea in Washington State and Galveston, Texas. I'm surely not the only property owner who questions whether I should continue paying a mortgage on a home I may never sell and that will not be the nest egg/college fund I had hoped it would be. We are real people struggling to keep our FICA scores good and not go in default. What we want to know is what precedents are being set? Should we keep paying mortgages for something that won't be there in the future? What has happend to all those property owners who have faced this issue already? I diligently write to my local officials, asking the same questions and there must be some collective knowledge worthy of Marketplace to help us investors in these beautiful, fragile ecosystems.

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