We have long considered man’s impact on the world, but are only starting to be able to chart the vastness of the scope of anthropogenic change. And wen it comes to the contraction of shores and beaches that has been forecast in current climate scenarios, the oldest of human environments, the shoreline and coast, seems in danger of drastic reduction at a scale we have rarely considered. The shifting littoral landscapse of the world have ben long neglected, if they are turned to each Earth Day for coastal cleanups and have been the site of intense preoccupations as a result of sea-level rise, as we have protected much of our national seashore.
But the prospect of an accelerated global erosion of coastal landscapes, and the loss of beaches, have only begun to be processed as triggering cascading consequences from disturbing ecological niches and coastal economies to the human relation to the natural world. The margin of the shoreline that was discovered in the middle of the twentieth century as a privileged site of intense biodiversity risks obliteration as a particularly fragile ecosystem. Yet the shoreline habitat is now a site of unprecedented vulnerability. (The same stretch of sensitive shoreline habitat was quickly closed to comply with shelter-at-place directive, given the range of urban residents who drove to flood its trails, beaches, and shoreline as a way to find balance, many standing transfixed before the waves in a particularly stressful time, seeking purchase on a moment few could really grasp.)
The seashore seemed a natural place of reflection. But it was hard to imagine the sensitivity of these littoral lands. While the national seashore at Point Reyes is a unique preserved coastal environment, where eroding cliffs meet sands along broad strips of beach whose low grade offers habitat to coastal birds, grasses, and shellfish, in a meeting point of fresh and salt water, the beauty of the coast seemed a perfect refuge in a time of disorientation.
This blog has long discussed the specter of anthropogenic change, but in the panic of COVID-19, it seemed clear that we lack the mode to talk about the scale at which such world-changing processes occur in inter-related ways. The future loss of shores would be quite difficult to imagine, even if one stares at the remote sensing maps that predict the effects of sea-level rise.. So many had voyaged to the shores as if by instinct during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in 2020, from Long Island to Marin, to the extent of disturbing many coastal residents, who read searching for break from anxiety by acts of coastal distancing as an unwelcome promotion of the danger of importing viral spread. In England and elshwere, many departed from the city, in search of a new environment, by traveling to the coasts–where they were greeted, similarly, by protests by those who saw their arrival as a harbinger of infection. Many public beaches, concerned about close contact, have outright closed, as coastal communities do their best to dissuade visitors seeking to escape infection in Hawaii, Moab, Alabama, North Carolina or the Gulf Coast–in ways that cut us off from the shore as a place of reflection.
If undue media attention may be directed to bemoaning college students on Florida Spring Break, we must remember that Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, ostensibly encharged with securing the state’s well-being and public welfare, stubbornly insisted on keeping beaches open in the state the shore until Easter, to allow “students to party” on Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Clearwater Beach, and other “hotspots” of pleasure into hot spots of viral infection: DeSantis, never one to stop claiming higher ground, hypocritically or not, only turned his wrath on the partiers after facing a lawsuit from the state Attorney General, and even as communities closed beaches, refused to shutter state beaches to limit the spread of the Coronavirus that were a vital parts of the state’s economy.
Shifting the blame to foreign travelers–and insisting on self-quarantining visitors from New York state or New Jersey–he sought to keep them open for business, by casting them as more vital than viral. DeSantis refused to accept the national scope of the problem, defending an economy that depended on tourism, elevating the economy over national health–and keeping them open a week after the closure of Disney World, after trying to keep a “six feet distance rule” to “stop large crowds from congregating,” as if the crowding was an issue, more than human proximity and contact–and refusing to take leadership on the issue by “deferring” to local government and causing confusion. As he reflected on the large number of elders in the state population, and their potential hindering of his own chances for re-election, it seems, did he alter his stance entirely, and beg the President to declare a national emergency, as the spread of the virus led to thousands of layoffs, with all non-essential businesses closed in coastal communities, as De Santis issued a state of emergency March 9.
Meanwhile the COVID-19 data timeline by mid-March had spread across Central Florida, with cases of infection clustering on the shores.
The abandonment of the closed Miami Beach–one of several citie that refused to keep its beaches open, as infection spread, as they knew what was really best for them–seemed to confirm the shore’s status as a natural site of reflection. The scope of projected reconfiguration of future shorelines would effect a deep change in the human relation to the shoreline, as much as the shoreline as a site of shelter and habitat.
Geographer Clarence Glacken famously referenced the “traces on the Rhodian shore” that the shipwrecked philosopher took as happy evidence of human habitation on Rhodes’s shores as a leitmotif of his magisterial survey of human agency on the environment and environmental influences on human history. His focus on imagining human impacts on the environment introduced ideas of human modification of the global environment in the powerful image of eroded shores in the NOAA’s Fluid Dynamics Project of earth sensing, and indeed assumes new relevance as a way of coing to terms with the reckoning of global impact from coastal retreat to a global pandemic like SARS-CoV-2. The essentially optimistic panorama Glacken presented in such detail of the human relation to nature has gained new life long after its publication, but seems all but undone by the scope of the rising level of global oceans.
As Glacken’s 1967 magnum opus set a basis for world systems studies, ranging from the pristine environment most suited to human life to human influences over the environment, his historicization of the concept of human modification of the landscape and environment might have extended in its most pessimistic form. For if it is hard to imagine the cascading effects of sea-level covering the shores where the Socratic Aristippus urged shipwrecked companions to “be of good hope, for indeed I see the traces of men!” on recognizing geometric figures in its sands as evidence of its human habitation, projected outlines of coastal retreat are global change foreign from any environmental models or human narrative, much as the spread of COVID-19. The anecdote of Aristippus’ recognition of the traces of geometric figures on Rhodes’ shore was preserved by Vitruvius to illustrate the close kinship of humanity and geometry, the pleasure-loving philosopher appearing in a treatise on architectural sciences, for whom the “geometrical “schemata” evidence human habitation. The ghostly geometries of areas of uninhabitable shores revealed in remote sensing are so unrooted from any philosophical context they seem to abandon them, but illustrate the new configuration of nature and culture foreign to the eighteenth century that concluded Glacken’s historicization of human landscape modification.
Only the possessions able to survive the unjust storms of bad fortune, after a shipwreck, and be carried across the waters in one’s mind, as the precepts of geometry, intangibles that trained architects possess and that can preserve them from unexpected storms. But the images of remote sensing reveal dangers of shorelines’ disappearance as sites of sociability and habitation we will find hard to process; the geometries of shoreline loss traced by remote sensing they project would submerge habitat and all traces of their habitation, in a major reversal of landscape protection, but whose foreignness makes us fall back on the first world systems models–even if it was occurring in Glacken’s life in beaches on the Atlantic coast, if without adequate integration into world systems models.
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: but if Michael Watt’s remembered Glacken as bending under the stress test of the Vietnam War, when he served as department chair, the images of global coastal retreat reconfigure world systems in ways that accelerate pessimism of landscape modification on a scale that is triggered but may be unable to be stopped by human action.
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.
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.
But the line of the beaches are difficult to register in maps, despite their deep human expereince, from an Apollonian cartographic view.
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–
–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.
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.
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?
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.
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. For Sauer’s image of the shore was, for Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, a true global itinerant, the oldest evidence of the attachment to place that he sw as distinguishing humanity in 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.
But if 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.