climate change, Marine Sciences, Science

Coastal Erosion: Climate Change is altering our coastlines

By: Jhada Haughton

A Disappearing Beach

“It’s like wi don’t have any beach, ah just water wi have”. These were the words of Hellshire resident, Joseph Buckley, to TVJ in a recent interview. It may be a hard pill to swallow to some, but he wasn’t exaggerating. Between 2004 and 2022, Hellshire has lost more than 33 meters of sand, leaving residents and vendors with little or no beach to access. The risk of drowning has also increased as the waters closer to shore are becoming deeper and the waves more powerful. How has something like this happened on our little island, famous for inviting visitors to our white sand beaches?

What is coastal erosion and why does it happen?

The term itself leaves no room for misinterpretation. Coastal erosion is literally the erosion of coastal areas. Sand is removed from their naturally accumulated deposit along the shoreline by the force of the incoming and retreating waves. The issue is not only affecting Jamaica but numerous beaches across the Caribbean region. This can be attributed to a mixture of both climate change and poor practices by locals. As we all know, climate change is the alteration, by humans, of the prevailing climatic conditions worldwide and several of its effects are contributing to the increase in the incidents of coastal erosion. 

  • Rising sea temperatures cause coral bleaching – Corals, believe it or not, are actually animals. Each coral is made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps living together as a colony. The presence of algae, called zooxanthellae, inside the cells of the polyps is what gives corals their vibrant colours. The high sea temperatures recorded in recent years, as a result of global warming due to climate change, trigger a stress response by the polyps. They expel all the coloured zooxanthellae within them, giving bleached corals their ghostly white look and inevitably causing their death.
  • Coral reefs are no longer able to withstand the force of the powerful waves – Numerous coral bleaching events coupled with excessive algal growth due to an oversupply of nutrients have caused a weakening in coral reefs around the island. This weakened natural defense is a contributing factor to the erosion of coastal sediments across the island. 
  • More intense hurricanes mean larger, stronger waves – There is no denying the fact that hurricanes and storms have become and will continue to become stronger due to the effects of climate change on our oceans. This means the waves hitting our shores from storm surges and during other weather events will not only damage more of the struggling reefs but also lead to more erosion of the coastline. The effects are multiplying and will be devastating.

What can we do about it? 

Numerous mitigation strategies exist to deal with coastal erosion and may be considered hard or soft engineering. Hard engineering involves the construction of permanent structures to disrupt erosion patterns along the coast. Some examples of this are groynes and jetties, typically constructed from boulders. As the incidence and intensity of beach erosion increase, we may see more of these structures, and others that have similar purposes.

Image of a Jetty
Image of Groynes

Soft engineering involves effective planning for long-term beach usage. This is heavily based on research that aims to understand erosion along the coast and other natural and anthropogenic occurrences which put the beach at risk. Proper management of the built environment along the coastlines is also a major focal point, as developments too close to the beach can ultimately lead to its destruction. One of the more innovative mitigation strategies is beach nourishment. In 2014, after years of intense erosion, scientists at the Discovery Bay Marine Lab were able to effectively reduce erosion on a small strip of the beach through the use of Shorelock Coastal Restoration Technology, a non-toxic substance that when mixed into the sand on the beach, allows the sand particles to stick together better, limiting loss to erosion. Despite the effectiveness, technologies like this require more research and are also expensive to acquire, more so on the large scale needed to have an impact.

Our beaches are under threat. Hellshire isn’t the first to go, and based on our current trajectory, it won’t be the last. Despite the expenses associated with the mitigation strategies, proactive measures need to be taken to preserve one of the region’s most famous features.

Resources

http://pdf.wri.org/working_papers/coastal_capital_jamaica_summary.pdf

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/27/jamaica-hellshire-beach-climate-change

https://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/what-happened-to-hellshire-beach/

https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/everything-you-need-to-know-about-coral-bleaching-and-how-we-can-stop-it

https://jamaica.loopnews.com/content/hellshire-vendors-cry-help-say-beach-erosion-hurting-business

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