Dan Ross began surfing when he was five years old. Growing up in Australia, Ross dreamed of becoming a professional surfer. “As kids, my brother and I practically lived in the ocean at our local beaches and experienced its beauty on so many levels.” Twenty-five years later and now a member of the ASP World Tour, Ross travels the world for surfing and he’s seeing the dramatic toll climate change has begun to take — threatening coastal communities and the sport he loves.
“In Australia, I’ve noticed higher tide lines and extreme beach erosion; its apparent all along the east coast … In America, I’ve seen places where houses are literally falling into the sea and you can really see the effects in California at Malibu and Point Dume.”
And Ross says these changes are even more frightening for surf destinations such as the Maldives — with its highest point only 2 meters above sea level, it is currently at risk of being the first island nation to be submerged. “What would they do?” he wonders.
Both the sport and culture of surfing are increasingly at risk due to the effects of climate change. Quite simply, surfing is reliant on healthy oceans and coasts. So as climate change drives fundamental changes — sea-level rise, ocean warming and acidification — the result could be a great readjusting, and potential loss, of the world’s surf communities.
Chad Nelsen, environmental director for the Surfrider Foundation, a grassroots network of surfers in eighteen countries around the globe, explains that the world’s surf spots are very sensitive to change. While surfers are often the most attuned to the conditions that impact their local waves, many of the climate-related shifts are slow-moving and difficult to see. A lifelong surfer himself, Nelsen says he’s been going to the shore at Laguna Beach since 1975 and hasn’t really noticed a perceptible difference, despite what he knows is happening beneath the surface.
“The problem with climate change is that we’re not perceiving it as incremental. These things will accelerate, even if we stop all carbon emissions today,” Nelsen says. His biggest fear is that “by the time it starts accelerating to a speed where we can perceive the change, it’s going to be too late and we’ll be suffering major consequences on the coasts.”
Global warming’s evil twin
Another dangerous byproduct of burning fossil fuels, ocean acidification threatens to upend the entire balance of the oceans and wipe out some of the world’s premier surf destinations in the process.
As we pump increasing amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, it’s not just wreaking havoc on air quality. The oceans are the world’s largest carbon sinks, absorbing one-quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted every year. The more carbon dioxide absorbed, the more acidic the water becomes. As a result, plankton that form the base of the ocean food web, and shellfish like oysters and clams, no longer have the calcium carbonate needed to form their shells and exoskeletons, which poses a tremendous risk to all marine life.
The oceans are also the primary source of heat absorption for the planet, and analyses from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, show that more than 90 percent of the warming that has happened on Earth over the past 50 years has occurred in the ocean.
Combined, these warmer and more acidic waters also spell catastrophe for corals, which also rely on calcium carbonate to survive. Coral reefs are fragile, exceedingly sensitive to variations in chemistry and with a narrow and specific temperature window in which they can survive. When the effects of ocean warming and acidification are added to marine pollution and overfishing, scientists expect 90 percent of all coral reef ecosystems to be threatened with extinction by 2030.
Since coral reefs produce many of the world’s finest surf breaks, loss of reefs has serious implications for surf spots across the globe. Acidification and warming are already taking their toll on iconic ecosystems and the world-class surfing they produce. “The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has been sadly affected by this,” says Ross. “If the coral reefs and surrounding environments die, then the magic feeling of those surf breaks will die.”
Rising tides and shifting waves
A recent report from NOAA’s Climate Program Office estimates that the effect of melting glaciers and ice sheets, combined with the thermal expansion of the ocean, will result in sea-level rise up to 6.6 feet in the coming century. According to Kevin Whilden, a geologist by training and co-founder of the nonprofit organization Sustainable Surf, “this will result in the loss and destruction of many surf breaks world-wide, because while projected sea level rise happens on a 100-year timescale, the geologic processes that form surf breaks happen on a 1000-year timescale.”
For surfers, the contour of a wave is as important as its size, and the way a wave builds and breaks is determined mainly by the shape of the ocean floor as it meets the shoreline. As sea levels rise, it will change where and how the waves break. As Pacific Standard explains, “waves that break at sand-bottomed surf spots like Huntington Beach in Southern California, or the Outer Banks in North Carolina, are likely to retain their same basic form as they move toward the land. But waves at surf spots that lack a dynamic bottom — where they break over cobblestone, like at Rincon, or coral reef, like G-Land, in Java — could change significantly.”
The ‘new normal’ of destructive coastal storms
As climate change drives more intense and destructive storms, coastal communities are increasingly vulnerable to storm surges, coastal flooding, erosion and other damaging impacts. As these events, and our response to them, permanently alter coastlines, they threaten to wipe out popular surf spots around the globe. Superstorm Sandy, the monster tropical storm that devastated large swaths of coastline along New York and New Jersey in late 2012, signified a ‘new normal’ of climate change-fueled storms. As sea-level rise leads to larger storm surges and higher sea surface temperatures bring more rainfall, storms like Sandy will continue to grow in severity.
A commonly used metaphor to explain this intensification is the use of steroids in baseball. Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, told Bloomberg Businessweek in its post-Sandy issue, “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”
A new study by Kerry Emanuel, a leading hurricane researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, finds that climate change will increase both the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones, while noting the relationship between global climate and hurricane activity is “only beginning to be understood.”
While stronger storms may seem like an initial boon for surfers due to the bigger waves that often result, the long-term effects of this shift could permanently alter or erase many surf spots. Unlike the reef-formed breaks in Australia and Hawaii, surf spots along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. depend on sand bars and beaches to create the waves.
Megastorms like Sandy will cause major erosion and sand displacement in coastal areas. While these processes in themselves can alter surf spots, surfers worry that the greatest potential impact stems from our response to these extreme events. As Nelsen explains, “If we respond to coastal erosion events with indiscriminate armoring and beach fill, not only are we likely to lose many of our favorite surf spots we are going to end up more vulnerable to future storms.”
As sea levels rise and coastal storms grow more powerful, current surf breaks all over the globe could disappear when the water becomes too deep over them and hard defenses built to shield towns and infrastructure block the waves from shifting to a changing coastline. Only where natural buffers, such as wetlands and dunes, are utilized to protect coastlines and allow to flow over the land will new breaks possibly appear.
Canaries in a coal mine
Surfers can be natural ambassadors for communicating the risks of climate change, but it’s not a widely discussed topic within the community. Ross speculates the slow-moving nature of climate change is part of the reason it is not a front-burner issue for many surfers. “If there was a huge oil spill and local beaches were affected, surfers would band together to instantly to solve the problem,” he says. “I don’t feel that this is the case for climate change, but the stakes are much higher if we don’t act with urgency.”
Noting the increased immediacy of climate change, companies like Volcom, a major surfing and snowboarding brand, are working to raise awareness and educate their consumers. Derek Sabori, Director of Sustainability for Volcom, said the company is making a concerted effort to incorporate climate change into its business model. “At one point carbon offsets felt out of reach, but the more we learn about permanent high tide effect, acidification, loss of reefs, diversity — its becoming something that we know needs to be addressed.”
Drawing on the success of Protect Our Winters, a network of professional winter sports athletes serving as spokespeople for action on climate change, surfing activists see tremendous potential for engaging their community. Grassroots organizations like Surfrider and Sustainable Surf are working to use surfing as an on-ramp to discussing these complex, and potentially charged, issues.
“We’re trying to be really sensitive to the fact that surfing is a luxury — it’s not necessarily the driver of coastal adaptation but an important way of understanding the problem, just like skiing,” notes Nelsen. “Surfing is driving a key component of the coastal economy and surfers are the iconic beach-goers.”
Ross, an ambassador for the environmentally-focused apparel company Patagonia, agrees that empowering his fellow surfers can pay huge dividends in broader efforts to move the dial on climate change. “Surfers are the natural guardians and spokespersons of the sea … We base our lives in and around it. Surfers must be among the first to lead by example to create the critical mass of change that will inspire others to look after the ocean — our playground.”