The beaches are moving. That’s the name of the first popular book on the subject of beach erosion and the imperfect ways that humans respond, written all the way back in 1979. I read it as a young college student and its basic premise has stuck with me ever since.
They ebb and flow by the year, month, day and hour. But there are changes coming to our local beaches that are more dramatic than anyone alive today has seen, and those changes will happen within most of our lifetimes.
Just this past February, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its latest sea level rise projections out to the year 2050. Those projections are very high confidence, and they show a tripling of the rate of sea level rise along our shores. That means that the nearly one foot of rise that occurred over the past century, will now happen in just the next 30 years. And one foot of vertical rise translates into hundreds of feet of horizontal retreat along our gently sloping shorelines.
Every problem of beach erosion on the Gulf side will get much worse. Every problem with beach erosion on the Sound side will get much worse. Every hurricane will flood higher than the same storm in the past. Despite this reality, we can still take action to avoid the worst of these impacts on the Island that we love.
In the past our seas rose and fell due to cyclical changes in Earth’s temperature from long-term deviations in the planet’s orbit and tilt, causing changes in the amount of solar radiation we receive. In warmer times ice melted and seawater expanded, causing seas to rise. In cooler periods ice formed on land and the volume of seawater contracted, causing sea levels to fall.
What’s driving the rising seas today is a warming planet caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas. And so the top thing we can do is to transition as soon as possible to renewable energy, which for Florida is mainly solar energy. It also means creating communities that use a lot less energy, such as those where it’s easier and more pleasant to get around by walking, bicycling and transit.
These shifts will improve our lives by bringing dramatically cleaner air and water and better public health. They will also help inspire us to live better lives in which progress is measured not by how much stuff we acquire, but by our character, our relationships with each other and our ability to care for friends, family, pets, gardens and our entire planet. Those are the things that science shows make us the happiest, rather than earning a high income.
We will also have to use our species’ best skills as problem-solvers. Humans are incredibly adaptable, as evidenced by our ability to live and thrive in some of the most varied and extreme climates on Earth.
Rising seas will challenge the people of Pensacola Beach and Escambia County to rise with them, showing the best of what we can do when we come together to find solutions. We will have to elevate and move structures, redesign infrastructure, revamp our energy systems and get even smarter with our limited sand supplies. And we will have to let some areas go, allowing the rising seas to claim them.
In the end, the largest barriers to success will not be physical or technical, but will come from a fear of change that limits our ability to adapt. Just as the beaches are moving, so we must move our hearts and minds.
[Christian Wagley works for Healthy Gulf, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the Gulf of Mexico and the waterways and communities along its shores. He has been exploring Santa Rosa Island since his days as a graduate student in the mid-1990s.]