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Can beaches survive climate change?

May 26, 2017

Anthropogenic climate change is driving sea level rise, leading to numerous impacts on the coastal zone, such as increased coastal flooding, beach erosion, cliff failure, saltwater intrusion in aquifers, and groundwater inundation. Many beaches around the world are currently experiencing chronic erosion as a result of gradual, present-day rates of sea level rise (about 3 mm/year) and human-driven restrictions in sand supply (e.g., harbor dredging and river damming). Accelerated sea level rise threatens to worsen coastal erosion and challenge the very existence of natural beaches throughout the world. Understanding and predicting the rates of sea level rise and coastal erosion depends on integrating data on natural systems with computer simulations. Although many computer modeling approaches are available to simulate shoreline change, few are capable of making reliable long-term predictions needed for full adaption or to enhance resilience. Recent advancements have allowed convincing decadal to centennial-scale predictions of shoreline evolution. For example, along 500 km of the Southern California coast, a new model featuring data assimilation predicts that up to 67% of beaches may completely erode by 2100 without large-scale human interventions. In spite of recent advancements, coastal evolution models must continue to improve in their theoretical framework, quantification of accuracy and uncertainty, computational efficiency, predictive capability, and integration with observed data, in order to meet the scientific and engineering challenges produced by a changing climate.