Maria Bakkalapulo (The Guardian) writes about the effects of climate change, natural disasters, and looming “sand wars.”
The sun is out, as usual, in the town of Surfside. Less than 10 miles north of Miami’s world-famous South Beach, just a square mile in size with a population near 6,000, it’s a typically prosperous American seaside community. Kite surfers zip along the azure waves as locals in flip-flops walk their toy-size dogs – just another south Florida day.
The “snowbirds” from up north will soon fly in for the winter. Surfside’s mayor, Daniel Dietch, arrives at the town hall, kicking up his Sector 9 skateboard. A 50-year-old husband and father of two, his day job is in environmental consultancy. “There are few things better to start the day than a jog on the beach, watch the sunrise and let the ocean breeze envelop you,” he said. But not all is rosy. Surfside’s picture-postcard beach is doing a slow-motion disappearing act – increasingly scoured by huge storms and encroached upon by rising sea levels, accelerated by the climate crisis.
Gorgeous sandy beaches are fundamental to Florida’s economy. A record 116.5 million tourists visited Florida in 2017, up 3.6% from 2016, generating commerce valued at $67bn.
But holding back the effects of hurricanes and high water is a project on an industrial scale – and one that’s only becoming bigger and more fraught. Some are even talking about “sand wars” in the Sunshine state. Since the 1950s Florida authorities have spent $1.3bn “nourishing” the beaches – periodically buying in supplementary sand. Despite a huge effort, nearly half the state’s 825 miles of beaches are now considered “critically eroded”.
And complications abound amid not just a local or US but a worldwide shortage of sand. Dredging and mining sand offshore causes environmental damage to the ocean floor, as does repairing the beach itself. In Florida, turtle nesting season has to be worked around, but smaller creatures just suffocate. “You basically kill a beach when you dump a bunch of sand on top of it,” said Matthew Schwartz, an environmentalist and executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “Microscopic animals that live in between sand, that create a kind of ecosystem there, are killed, and it creates all kinds of turbidity in the water, damaging the coral reefs.”
Surfside is currently “re-nourishing” its beach after a struggle for cash and supplies.
Like many other beach towns it was applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) cash to repair hurricane damage when Dietch read news reports earlier this year that the Trump administration aimed to divert some of that money to build the president’s promised wall on the US-Mexico border.
[. . .] Northern Florida has more sand to spare than the southern coast but Dietch said there’s “tension” because the northern counties “don’t want their sand being excavated and barged to Miami-Dade county”. Places like the Carolinas also guard their sand jealously. So Surfside and many other Florida resorts turn to a sand mine near Lake Okeechobee north of the Everglades wilderness area.
[. . .] “There’s noise in the background about wealthier counties wanting to mine sand off the coast of counties that are less developed,” said Tom Tomasello, a former general counsel for the state environment agency. [. . .]
Some want to dig for supplies overseas. The Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio last month reintroduced a bill that’s failed before, calling for a way around federal laws banning the import of sand, so that his state could go shopping with public funds for gorgeous, cheap sand from the Bahamas less than 100 miles east of Florida’s Atlantic coast. He is arguing there’s an especially acute need because early September’s Hurricane Dorian damaged some Florida beaches.
The double irony is that, first, the damage happened even though the storm didn’t make landfall in the state, instead wreaking destruction in parts of the Bahamas, and second, climate experts point out that such storms are being exacerbated by global heating, whereas Rubio only recently began softening slightly on his long-held, hardline denials of a human-caused climate emergency.
Palm Beach county alone saw 539,695 cubic yards of sand, enough to fill 165 Olympic-size swimming pools, swilled by Dorian from beaches the county owns and manages a pebble’s throw from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago private oceanside resort. The county has a dredging program, but wants to keep the sand for local needs. “Some of the counties to the south of us are really running low,” said Andy Studt, who manages Palm Beach county’s beaches program. “I wouldn’t say we’re going to share it. We’re not actively advertising that we have excess sand because we know that we have enough to get us through the next couple decades, but that’s it.”
Each year, the cycle continues. Hurricane season brings stronger storms and rising sea levels bring higher tides. Beach repair is the first line of defense, leading to an increasingly costly and desperate scramble for sand. But the bigger picture is just too overwhelming for many Floridians to contemplate.
The National Academy of Sciences asserts that global sea levels could rise more than 6ft by 2100, twice as much as previously predicted, making much of Florida uninhabitable. [. . .]
[Photograph: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.]