Losing Beaches, Losing Places

The shallow estuary of the Bay drains water from over 40% of the state. The bay has been reduced in size by landfill, coastal modification, wetlands removal, and infill by a third since the late nineteenth century, when many wetlands, inlets, and smaller bays were filed in, and massive amounts of sediment, released by hydraulic mining for gold in the 1850s, have filled in many of its waters. But the redefining of ifting bayside shores were most pronounced in Sauer’s day in the South Bay outside Redwood City by the 1950s and 1960s was not yet defined by a coastal highway, but the rebuilding of slews and sloughs was itself an era of landscape modification. Glacken developed his own determination to struggle against a dominant notion of environmental determinism, setting sites on the project of illuminating the interdependence between human culture and natural environments, that has since gained rewarded scrutiny as the stability of our environment has shifted beyond recognized models of scale and spatial continuity.

The place of humanity in nature that Glacken so energetically and diligently studied and saw as the most inspirational nature of geographic thought, by integrating human agency in a history of environmental change–before environmental history existed as a subject, by something like an archeology of ecological thought. Recent remote sensing projections based on climate modeling would lead to the flooding of shorelines across all continents, make Enlightenment engravings of the geometric figures on Rhode’s shores eery precursors of the new geometries of rising sea-levels across the world. The terms of Glacken’s sustained historical focus–human relation to nature–has fundamentally shifted: geographer Michael Watts remembered Glacken as bending under the stress test of the Vietnam War, serving as department chair, but the prospect of global coastal retreat would accelerate the pessimism of landscape modification Glacken in industrialized society, and stand reconfigure world systems on a scale unable to be conceived by human thought, challenging human culture in unprecedented ways, that Glacken’s work on the relation of man and nature and global ideas of habitability may provide a basis to return.

Glacken’s pioneering history opened assessment of the effects of human life on the environment, however, prompt reconsiderations of the future sea-level rise. The most recent modeling predicting a compromising of global beaches and coasts would be perhaps the deepest impact ever of human life on the inhabited world and earth’s geography—-a comprehensive radically aggressive modification of ecosystems and shoreline experience alike. And if Glacken’s concept for Traces on the Rhodian Shore began from the precedent-setting paper, “Changing Ideas of the Habitable World,” that lays a basis for thought about the anthropocene, in the 1955 conference “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth,” all but introducing study of human beings as modifiers of the environment. Glacken’s atteniotn to the relation of humanity to nature predated the industrial revolution. Sensitive to the absence of integrating an awareness of man’s changing impact on the environment in the history of human societies, it examined how attitudes to the natural world shape human institutions.

Even under a non-drastic scenario–Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5, a so-called “stabilization scenario” that models a control over radical global warming, it is hard to gain orientation on the scale of coastal retreat across the world in the coming century might bring. NOAA’s geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory seeks to predict how levels of greenhouse gas emissions might cumulatively affect the global oceans and planet; the first of the two global futures mapped below, the radical change of the retreat of sandy beaches is striking–and this is something of a base-line or best picture of what we might be lucky enough to attain.

Global Coastlines under Threat: Projected Longterm Threat to Shoreline Change, 2050 and 2100
in Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5 and Represenatative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (Michalis Voudoukas 2020)

How could we come to terms with the map of the erosion of beaches and coastal retreat than as a new relation to the environment? This conservative reading of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on coastal retreat would reconfigure the global shorelines to an extent we have not fully appreciated, creating a threat to the very sandiness of our shores, as much as to coastal populations. While we have considered coastal vulnerability in relation to human population of the coast, in other words, the broad ecosystems changes that would begin from the erosion of the shores as habitats would either trigger a massive need for adaptation of shore-dwelling species, or cause the complete destruction of the extremely delicate ecosystem of the shores, revealing the vulnerability of the world to coastal retreat on such massive scale.

A far more probable scenario–if only considered so recently–of the scale of coastal retreat by RCP 8.5, still not exaggerated at all, would create massive retreat of our beaches in less than a generation.

Long gone is the time when one ever mapped the future optimistically. But can one really forecast a map of beach loss? The alarming scope of the projected impending contraction of our beaches based on recent satellite data stands to erode one of the most sensitive and productive areas of biodiversity and beauty in the world, at considerable if not unfathomable cost to the globe. While difficult to imagine in a global crisis, the projection transcends the sort of future we can even grasp.

The prospect nags, and is hard to map, let alone by a global projection.

There is almost a primal call to walking on the meander of the edge of the shoreline, just beyond the foam traces often left by waves and the piles of seashells, often oysters or crabs left by birds; perhaps it is as a result that one has a particular attachment to the shore, as a natural course or path, not a line, after all, but a coastal meander. Hugging the coastline, at a margin for the shore, on such a meander as if coasting a contour of the topographic map, one feels an appreciation of place and security.

The sense of the security of the edge derives from the holistic embrace of space along the shoreline was something poet John Betjeman tried to register on the shore at Anglesey, in Whales, watching the near coastal key bands and coloration of the water from the shore as the tide rose. As the tide “slaps at the rocks the sun has dried,” Betjeman surveyed an expansive coastal space, as “The water, enlarging shells and sand,/Grows greener emerald out from the land/And brown over shadowy shelves below/The waving forests of seaweed show” from a coastal edge of “shells, dried bladderwrack, broken glass,/Pale blue squalls and yellow rock roses” as he sensed “The thymy, turfy and salty scents/ And filling in, brimming in, sparkling and free/The sweet susurration of incoming sea.” Betjeman, a bit aloof from experience, failed to mention the insularity of Anglesey, its shore long a site for harvesting sea salt panned on its shores.

John Speed, Map of Anglesey (1607)

But the line of the beaches are difficult to register in maps, despite their deep human expereince, from an Apollonian cartographic view.

Islands of Anglesey, Petrus Bertus (1618)

Henry David Thoreau expressed a sense of walking a natural line long before. He described the “narrow, meandering walk” along a “line of rubbish marks the higher tides—withered reeds and twigs and cranberries,” in December, 1850 as “to my eyes a very agreeable and significant line which Nature traces.”  We may be destined to be removed from such a sense of unity with a line traced by Nature, pried apart from it by the projections of coastal rise; the fear of shoreline erasure and coastal deterioration. The projected threat of episodic beach retreat over hundred year period that was projected, based on alternate scenarios of climate change, RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5, alternate scenarios contingent on population, carbon emissions, and reducing carbon re-absorption–an array of considerable complexity and great variability, to be be sure–

Image: Neil Craik, University of Waterloo

–configures wha seem similar scenarios for shoreline loss that seems particularly painful as a loss.

One possible revision of the current global map is colored by variations by country, emphasizing the effective transfiguration of much of Indonesian coastlines, and much of the arctic north, as well as the large antipodal landmasses of Greenland and Australia. Many of these shores is dark blue, denoting a degree of loss of up to twenty meters.

Episodic Beach Erosion (Projected), 2020

The contraction that the current rates of sea-level rise suggest would provide a basis for imagining that ocean water will cover hundreds of miles of sandy shores. Not only is this painful as a loss of place for future humans, who will have less of a sense of the shoreline as a timeless place, it seems, but as it will mean saline water penetrating lands and rural areas, it will also mean reducing the delicate nature of shores as spaces of particular dynamism providing not only habitat but shelter to multiple species. Since before Rachel Carson, shorelines have been recognized and studied as a crucial site of evolutionary development–and indeed one of the most vibrant living sites in the inhabited world, where more interaction between species–and more sites of nesting, scavenging, sites of rest for pacific pelagics, and a hugely important site for birds feeding on insects, will be asked to migrate or be reduced. Yet we stand to turn our back upon the shores, potentially reducing sandy shores by up to a hundred meters by the current century’s close.

Indeed, the terrifying image of the massive reduction of sandy beaches–scarcely imaginable in earlier eras, the edge-picture that we need to retain would be the best way to examine the project rise in seawater by just under 110 cm–a rate potentially reduced to less than a third–that could leave us with a reduced coastal beaches that would expose not only more densely settled coasts to marine storms as shorelines stand to shrink with coastal retreat over the century. One might imagine the option between losing, say, 40,000 sq km or 66,000 sq km of sandy beaches in eighty years–not at a far off date, but very much within the lives of folks now living, who may remember the beaches of the past.

The unimagined extent of such beach-loss would and shoreline retreat projected would not only expose densely settled coasts to marine storms, but threaten their unique environment. Rachel Carson described shorelines as dynamic sites that “keeps alive the continuing sense of creation and the relentless drive of life,” trying to raise awareness in the shore as a delicate ecotone. If we have built right up to the shores, in much of the coastal United States and elsewhere, not allowing for much of a margin for ocean swellings or rise, the possibility of a contracting shoreline would suggest a redrawing of global continents, as an advancing edge of the ocean rises beyond where we have seen it, creating extreme land erosion that will probably not create further sands, but more jagged edges of what was a gentle sloping of beach terrain.

Sand is a subtle medium, but sandy shorelines are defining aspects of most of the world’s coasts at different latitudes, densest at a perfect spot removed from the equator, but defining much of the coastal perimeter–shown, in this map’s legend, against the latitudinal distribution of sands off of continental shelves in the classic 1967 study of Miles O. Hayes–adding a pronounced sandiness, for example, to the beaches of Mexico and Baha, or the sandiness of South China, Vietnam, and Jamaica, or Saudi Arabia and the Person Gulf. This data “map” or visualization of the quantity of beach loss is scary–Africa’s sands stand to be reduced by half, and the beaches of the United States and Australia by a third each, no doubt with variations, but in the manner of a data vis purify the shores in isolation from the ocean, their coherence evident only as datapoint, really, in an oversimplification that the charismatic meaning of data allows, separating them from the environmental role of the beach as a site of shelter or in relation to coastal oceans that are such sites of life.

Global Distribution of Shandiness of Shorelines (yellow is sand, dark brown non-sand)

But the shoreline, as we have long known, is an ecotone, rich not only for its role in evolutionary development, but the very living environments that they provide.

The danger of curtailing the combined beauty and dynamism of the shore, and the shore as an environment of dynamic productivity, suggests more than a curtailment of coastlines on which more than half the world’s populations live within thirty-seven miles of the sea: it would bode a real reduction of the environmental global imagination. If islands effective remove of islands from the shorelines has led space to contract, the reduction of beaches in shorelines would be a massive change in human geography of far greater scope.

Can we imagine the scale of such a cartography of loss, as the sands that settle on shores as sediment move underwater and offshore?

httpProjected Shoreline Change

There was a relatively recent return to the shores, indeed, as the shoreline was valued as a distinct area of place, in the Northeast of the United States, as many of the very areas whose former coastal inhabitants as fisherman and farmers moved inland, driven by economic change, in the 1930s and 1940s, abandoned their homes to many city-dwellers who flocked to the shores to enjoy them; as fishermen moved inland, shore frontage became prized areas of vacation homes. Historian John Gillis noted that the rootlessness of the nineteenth century, increasingly endemic in urban life on the mainland in the United States, led to a search for a sense of place lacking “in the vast, featureless landscapes of urban industrial society,” as shorelines promised ways of “being at home in the world, as much a mental as a physical endeavor,” locating states of minds on the shores that may have been a call to return to an almost primeval space of rest.

Repose was broadly identified with shores as sights of remove from over-inhabited space, as it became a space for reflection: in the early industrial era, as many ships and smaller crafts withdrew form the oceans around New York harbor, Ishmael, narrator of Moby Dick, described how even in urban Manhattan, a metropolis “belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs,” “thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries,” on weekends, seated on pier heads or leaning against spiles, looking to sea. Ishmael described the almost natural longing for the sea at the start of his own whaling romance; the shore provided such “water gazers” a liminal space to the unknown, still foreign undomesticated, and a vantage point on its wild. But the open beaches on the shore became far more as a space for walking on, and in traversing, in ways, domesticating and making the ocean known.

Those same shores that were the focus of evolutionary investigation and valued as sites of mental relaxation as well as dynamic sites of natural history may themselves vanish or unimaginably contract. We may be, potentially, at risk of losing these states to soil erosion, under different models of climate change, based on carbon-concentration in the atmosphere, in what some scientists argue may in fact under-estimate future atmospheric concentrations of carbon, in ways we have little sense of how to prepare, even though the restoration of wetlands, bogs, and swamps goes some way to reabsorb the rise of waters, whose rate of rise will not be sudden, but could create such massive problems of erosion in only eighty years to test the abilities of global governance and local economies, as much as disorient global inhabitants in troublesome ways.

Sandy Coastalines Threatned by Erosion (2020)

This frontier of anthropogenic change was not supposed to happen, as the sense of the shore as a primeval space seemed a point of access to the past–the future was rarely thought to include also their disappearance. Geographer Carl Sauer hence extolled the shore as the most attractive site or setting as ‘primitive home’ for man, as he saw the “tidal shore” as providing the “best opportunity to eat, settle, increase and learn” in its diversity and abundance of provisions, its very unique ecological niche especially “congenial” for the development of human culture.

The shore has been long privileged as a unique “place,” a site privileged for the evolutionary niches and possibilities it created as an “ecotone” uniquely congenial to human development as a site of feeding, sociability, and, increasingly, a place of openness in enclosure, a respite from industrialization, before it was discovered as a site of “nature” and natural observation. Sauer’s insistence on the importance of the shore, before attention to which tidal zones gained in the work of Rachel Carson, was, for Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, a true global itinerant, the oldest evidence of the attachment to place distinguishing humanity in the manner that he argued in his classic Topophilia, his foundational work on human geography. Nothing not only the ability for humans to move in water, Sauer saw shorelines as the primeval first homes providing food or exchange that the return to the coast reflect. Sauer’s grand and commanding environmental historical scope led him to predict that “when all the lands will be filled with people and machines, perhaps the last need and and observance of man will still be, as it was at his beginning, to come down to experience the sea,” not conceiving the possibility the future shore could change. “Our appreciation of space through the eyes is minimal,” Tuan somewhat mercurially wrote, against the grain, in a center for the study of cartographic imagery, describing the “‘insaneness’ of interior space” as a cultural accomplishment that Tuan recognized in the description of the medieval cathedral his fellow exile, Erwin Panofsky, extolled as the security of a cultural redoubt exemplified in Chartres as a “discovery of interiority” in the “palace of light” and security.

Was not the shore, also, discovered as a privileged city of interiority for city dwellers? Yi-Fu Tuan pioneered humanistic geography after he had left Berkeley, but his diaspora odyssey from China to Australia, where his father was a consul, to Manila, to London and Oxford, may well have led him to valued Sauer’s discussion of the historical site of the shore. But Tuan pursued the investigation of place on aesthetic grounds whose study provided something like a place of personal salvation in almost redeeming ways–much as he described the discipline of geography in salvific terms as the arrival of a place in intellectual formation, discourse, and comfort for the displaced person he was. In his retrospective account of his intellectual, social, and sexual formation, “Who Am I?,” an epigrammatic reflection overcoming reticent about is personality and career that is heart-felt and emotional, he described his deep sense of disillusionment in traveling beyond the village life to Australia, dismayed at his father’s exchanges of gifts as a social pantomime distant from pleasure, or undignified open calculation of personal advancement mirroring a sociology of power and prestige, he found hope in the search for a “good place” of morality, “a tiny hole through which a hint of another reality could enter” to reject “Chinese familism;” geographic inquiry became, more than academia, a “good place” of philosophic remove on the perception of place, encouraged by “my sexual bent” that formed in the desert: the study of glaciology he pursued with monastic remove in New Mexico became a place to confront his fear of mortality; the desert he found himself drawn “not only to its pure lines and ease of orientation but to barrenness itself, an overpowering sense of absence that he rhapsodized as having “rubbed his nose in the pungent odor of decay,” wiping clean sex, biological life, and death itself, and exhilarating remove and renunciation of familial duties, overpowering him by its place, and the power of human ties to place, which, if it rarely mentioned his encounter with Sauer’s thought, took direction as the inversion of the 1955 symposium Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, which he attended, and led him to address human ties to place, that the changing global place of shoreline may well erase. His prolonged appreciation of the stoic desert of New Mexico, improbably, registering, as if in exile, the beauty of open spaces of the desert that he loved, in studying glaciology, returned this displaced cosmopolite to the delicate nature of place as transcultural concept in human history, in its own way, a life-line to which this displaced mandarin in a biography that born in Tianjin to an upper class learned family spent his early life in a forced exile to Australia, Manila, and a new iter scholastic through London, Oxford, and Berkeley, before ending up in New Mexico for six years?

Yi-Fu Tuan was far from the shore with glaciers, focussed on desiccated shores, but the slow progress of glaciology seems something like a refuge for pondering cataclysmic change of the twentieth century, before he moved to a full-time positions in the American north–Toronto, Minnesota, and Madison: his classic 1961 fundamental article in Landscape did not focus on the shore, but he would note the deeply aesthetic as well as environmental changes of the effects of coastal retreat as erasing a “good” place. Whereas the dense materiality of the biomass of the rainforest denied individuality by its very superfluity, the separate space of the desert clarified a duality of place and space, framing the “beautiful clarity” of the individual against its backdrop of sand and sky. And if Tuan did not address the shore in his work on place in the classic Landscape article of 1961, but place in relation to the environment, which the mechanics of coastal retreat stands to erase in both aesthetic and humanistic terms that his humanistic dynamics of one’s attachment to place, and to the shore, that recall Sauer’s work, and the role of man on changing the earth’s face that Yi-Fu Tuan understood his humanistic work on geography as also addressing, a new Thoreau appreciating the barren wilderness of the desert as a point of reflection on global change.

Should these projections are correct, as they seem, shorelines stand to be eclipsed, as the coastal retreat from 2010 levels recede into the past, and the connection to those shores that were long colonized by built out residents stand to disintegrate–with signifiant losses appearing along the shores of South and Central America, much of the Eastern United States, the Indian Ocean and Eastern Africa, as well as most the entire perimeter of Australia and Indonesia, where land erosion stands to reconfigure human geography, given the greater scale of impending shoreline change.

How can one respond to the data visualization of so many strikingly broad swaths of thick, red shore lines, marking a two hundred meter loss, deeply unsettling as an entry in an ecosystem balance book? The impending loss has not been helped, to be sure, by a quite intentional understanding of the shore as if it were only a fixed line, or an edge out to which one can build, and not a site of flux, and indeterminacy, whose motion occurs not only with the tides, but over time–if such an extent of movement and loss are foreign from most of our minds.

Mapping loss is hard to conceive, as materializing such projections. We do not usually make prognostications of nostalgia, or of the future absence of a site. But the shorelines pose a particularly poignant sense of nostalgia, a genre of describing the return of the hero traveling home by the seas–νόστος–even overcoming, as Odysseus, struggles on his way to gain the bearings needed for his return and arrival home, except that here, rather than arriving home, there seems the sense that the sea voyage will not be complete, is not undertaken by an individual, but is a voyage of the shores apart from the land–a story, so much as it can be mapped, of erosion, underwater lands, and lost places that will not come back. And perhaps it is all wrong to even suggest this mapping might be conceived in relation to an observer: who is to say there will be a human observer to watch it, even as the erasure of the biological niches of the shores will be most acutely felt by the crustaceans, birds, and migratory species that dwell there, from the endangered pelagics as sea turtles to sea lions.

How best to embody this sense of loss, and of absence, is perhaps best left on the front burner of future cartographers of climate change. It may be, of course, that populations cease to rise at projected rates globally, though that seems doubtful, or that in fact emissions levels to decline–as shown in graphic terms, for the first time in recent memory, if only as the Chinese economy has ground to a standstill, in what may be a predictor of one alternative global future not considered in climate modeling, as carbon emissions were reduced in China by as much as 100 million tons over just two weeks, NO2 releases dropping by almost 40% over the same  period, from February 3 to February 16, and CO2 declined by a quarter. Indeed, the massive reduction in tropospheric NO2 density has so shrunk over China alone over a month due to factory closures, a ban on driving, the NASA researcher Fei Liu, who specialized in air quality researcher expressed shock at its dramatic contraction: “This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.”


The echoing of the scenarios gamers indulging in such post-apocalyptic computer games as Plague Inc. may be best equipped to calibrate and process the seamlessness with which what is happening in such visualizations of the spread of COVID-19 and the fall-off of NO2 tropospheric demissions since Hubei province when on lockdown on Chinese New Year, and local governments advised folks stay at home for the start of what seemed the spread of a new Black Death in the Year of the Rat.

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Filed under anthropogenic change, Climate Change, coastlines, data visualization, remote observation, shoreline change

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