In Puerto Rico, the economy depends on tourist dollars. Tourists and locals alike are drawn to the island’s sun-kissed beaches for fun in the sun. But sea-level rise from thermal expansion and the melting of polar ice caps has begun to erode the beaches. The width of beaches is decreasing, which reduces the buffer ability for the energy of a wave. Sand gets lost to the sea, and that creates the ideal conditions for buildings and infrastructure to collapse into the sea when storm activity occurs.
Even before Maria, more than half of Puerto Rico’s beaches were eroding, partly because building on the coast can disrupt natural cycles of sand movement.
That’s a problem when nearly everyone lives along the coasts.
“Most of the economic activity of Puerto Rico occurs also in the coastal areas, mostly in the San Juan metropolitan area,” said Ernesto Díaz, Director of the Puerto Rico Coastal Zone Management Program. All the electric power stations are located on the coast, along with sanitary infrastructure, power lines and fiber optic cables.
He says erosion is a natural process. Sea levels also vary naturally over time. But human actions have sped those things up.
“So if sea level rise is increasing at an accelerated pace, and we’re losing beaches also at an accelerated pace, and we humans made ourselves vulnerable by building so close to the coastline, obviously what were formerly natural processes are now social problems,” Díaz said.
— NataschaOS (@NataschaOS) August 12, 2019
Hurricane and coastal storm damages including inundation, erosion, and wave attack along the San Juan and Rincón coastlines threaten infrastructure and beach access for recreation and contribute to public safety hazards. Infrastructure is located along large portions of the study area, including commercial businesses, hotels, condominiums, residential homes, roads, public parkland, and public beach access points. Loss of protective beaches and dunes due to shoreline recession threatens infrastructure. Homeowners and hotels seeking to protect their property have constructed some shore protection measures, such as seawalls, large stone revetments and gabions. Some of the structures and materials used are inadequate to provide significant protection and are often constructed in an uncoordinated fashion without regard to system-wide coastal processes, exacerbating erosion on adjacent shorelines
"Storm Surge of the Dead" as it's known in Puerto Rico, was at its peak today with waves up to 12 ft causing coastal flooding. This is drone video in Ocean Park, along the northern coast. The good news: these swells replenish sand swept away during beach erosion.
📸: Eloy Perez pic.twitter.com/XGWGXrQ3LE
— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) November 1, 2019
Climate change has affected Puerto Rico in some extremely significant ways.
First, warmer ocean water temperatures fueled Hurricane Maria, bringing as much rain in one day as the Island usually sees in three months. A new study determined that the sheer quantity of rain was enough to cause landslides, flooding, and unsafe water conditions across the territory.
Maria was the largest and most destructive hurricane in Puerto Rico’s history, but climate change has increased the chances of seeing more devastating storms.
Scientists also blame climate change for the collapse of insect populations in Puerto Rico’s rain forests. Since insects are food for so many other creatures, the shocking drop in numbers of insects will reverberate all along the food chain. “We are essentially destroying the very life support systems that allow us to sustain our existence on the planet, along with all the other life on the planet,” said researcher Brad Lister. “It is just horrifying to watch us decimate the natural world like this.”
A 2017 report from the Environmental Protection Agency said that Puerto Rico’s average temperature had increased by one degree and the surrounding water had gotten two degrees hotter since 1901. One or two degrees may not sound like much, but it is enough to affect agriculture, to reduce the amount of oxygen in the waters and therefore the available fish, and to increase tropical diseases with insect vectors.
Climate change is also melting ice globally, and for Puerto Rico that means that the water is rising at the rate of one inch per decade. Again, that may not sound like much, but it is enough to increase flooding and erosion. Flooding can affect drinking water and the safety of homes and beaches.
It is not only climate change that is destabilizing the island’s ability to survive the changes in a warming climate. Sand and gravel extraction is right up there with climate change as a severe threat.
All sandy beaches in Puerto Rico are threatened as source watershed disruption blocks the delivery of sand from river sources. Industrial sand removal operations have permanently removed fragile sand dune ecosystems around the island. Loss of over one meter of sandy beach face is not uncommon on many beaches in Puerto Rico.
Construction activities have crowded close to the shoreline because of limited land areas and reduced construction costs. This has not only aggravated the erosional process, but has put valuable new property in areas of natural erosion. This has in turn created the need to institute urgent and expensive protective techniques to protect the investment. These remedies may have effects not immediately recognized. Construction close to the beach south of Mayaguez Harbor was being rapidly endangered by erosion. Riprap was emplaced to protect this property, which then cut off a source of sand — natural coastal erosion — from the area to the south. The next step was riprap protection for houses to the south which were being threatened by the erosion generated by the riprap. As the problem moved south the entire beach was eventually replaced with riprap. The coast is now stabilized, with a basic change in coastal classification from sandy beach to rocky shoreline, man-made.