, Volume 64, Issue 1-2, pp 41-58

Global Warming and Coastal Erosion

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Abstract

One of the most certain consequences of global warming is an increase of global (eustatic) sea level. The resulting inundation from rising seas will heavily impact low-lying areas; at least 100 million persons live within one meter of mean sea level and are at increased risk in the coming decades. The very existence of some island states and deltaic coasts is threatened by sea level rise. An additional threat affecting some of the most heavily developed and economically valuable real estate will come from an exacerbation of sandy beach erosion. As the beach is lost, fixed structures nearby are increasingly exposed to the direct impact of storm waves, and will ultimately be damaged or destroyed unless expensive protective measures are taken. It has long been speculated that the underlying rate of long-term sandy beach erosion is two orders of magnitude greater than the rate of rise of sea level, so that any significant increase of sea level has dire consequences for coastal inhabitants. We present in this paper an analytical treatment that indicates there is a highly multiplicative association between long-term sandy beach erosion and sea level rise, and use a large and consistent data base of shoreline position field data to show that there is reasonable quantitative agreement with observations of 19th and 20th century sea levels and coastal erosion. This result means that the already-severe coastal erosion problems witnessed in the 20th century will be exacerbated in the 21st century under plausible global warming scenarios.