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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 the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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