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Beaches are Valuable, Just Not the Way You Thought They Were

tl;dr: stop developing oceanfront property because beaches are too important as carbon capturers.

Labor Day is approaching, and many of you will take the opportunity to go visit a beach for the last time this summer. Beaches are beautiful locations. There are many reasons why they are so popular, ranging from the escapism of different scenery to the ability to interact with the ocean. The popularity is so great that many high-end resorts have popped up and continue to be developed to take advantage of this alluring environment. There is only one teeny tiny issue with this. Coastal environments are not only stunning to look at, but they are also incredibly valuable for carbon capture.

What many people are unaware of is that over 80% of the global carbon cycle involves oceans. That shouldn't really be a surprise, as 71% of the planet is covered in water. However, what may be shocking to those that are aware of this fact is that half the carbon sequestered in ocean sediments comes from coastal habitats. Coastal habitats that are amazing carbon sinks range from mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrass. Anyone want to guess what competes with these incredible environments? If you thought oceanfront resorts with private beaches, immaculate cabanas laid out with geometric precision, and palm trees strategically placed to enhance selfie photo quality, you'd be absolutely correct.

Our coastal resources are in a very interesting state right now. On one side, the environmental one, we are seeing beaches impacted by rising sea-levels, coastal erosion, and acidifiation of the water. On the other side, we are seeing competition of fixed resources from population growth, infrastructure development, and tourism. These mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrass beds often become collateral damage in the competition for these coveted beach locations. This is horrible news for the global carbon cycle.

Let's take mangroves for example. Mangroves are suffering a habitat loss of 2% a year. This isn't really a big deal because of how small that number is, right? After all, mangroves represent only 0.7% of all land on this planet. We're talking miniscule amounts here. Except that it is estimated that this tiny amount of landloss actually accounts for 10% of emissions from deforestation globally. Yeah, maybe mangroves are a little more important than another beach resort by whatever global conglomerate that you are picturing in your head.

If you have ever seen the lowcountry region of South Carolina, I sincerely hope you find tidal marshes as beautiful as I do. While they are pretty, developers can't really monetize them as well as a well-manicured golf course and the surrounding McMansions on it, so tidal marshes are also disappearing at a 2% clip a year as well. Over half of all tidal marshes on the planet are now gone. Was yet another beach front condominium worth that?

Venture a little bit into the ocean, and you will find beds of seagrass. Seagrass might be the most underestimated player in carbon capture, because these beds cover less than 0.2% of the ocean floor but store 10% of the carbon in all the oceans. They definitely provide exponential value in this critical process. Yet, despite this, seagrass is disappearing at...drumroll please....2% a year as well. It is estimated that 30% of all historic seagrass beds are gone. Seagrass gets destroyed by overfishing and pollution from coastal development. It seems there are bigger consequences for that nice picture of the grinning fisherman with his masssive (fill in the blank fish) catch.

These three elements of coastal habitats and their tiny 2% annual losses actually account for an estimated 1.02 billion tons of CO2 a year, which is 19% of all the emissions from tropical deforestation. Sometimes little numbers and insignificant things can really add up to something rather large. Like most sustainability blog posts, the numbers are typically terrifying. However, we can do something about this. Perhaps we should amend that sentence to: we must do something about this. Winston Churchill famously said this, and while he wasn't referring to sustainability, it sure is appliable to this issue.

Development only occurs because of demand. People want to be near the water. I get it, it totally is understandable. Unfortunately, as I previously stated, a large percentage of the development is not inclusive properties where all can enjoy the natural beauty. They are exclusive, designed to cater to only those that qualify to experience what should be accessible by all. Going to the beach should not cater to a luxury lifestyle setting with the private beach that destroyed all the natural habitat so that it can look like something Capt. Jack Sparrow would pop out of. If you aren't going to be able to go to that resort anyway, why should we destroy such essential carbon sinks just so people that don't care about you have better Instagram photo backdrops?

I know that this Four Seasons private beach resort looks amazing. Is this $600 a night complex worth the environmental impact? Only a select few of us will ever be able to spend even one night here, but we all are effected by the rise in sea level and temperatures that result from huge amounts of carbon that could have been sequestered here instead. I don't need to aspire to go mimic the same photo of Kim & Pete in their tropical getaway if it means destroying marshes, seagrass, or mangroves to do so. All too often, that is what is happening. And the frustrating thing is that Kim and Pete broke up! It didn't even last a year. The damage that we are doing to our coastal assets is going to stick around far longer than every single one of these idolized social media influencers relationships combined, and the cost is going to be far more than $600 a night, too.

Coastal enjoyment does not require laying on the beach. It can be kayaking/canoeing the mangrove swamps, it can be sailing in saltmarsh channels and inlets. It can be scuba diving and appreciating the lush scenery of a healthy and vibrant seabed. Mangroves, marshes, and seagrasses are too important to be replaced with buildings and properties that provide services to a select few, and it's time to glamorize what value natural assets provide instead of seeking to replicate the artificial lives of what is seen on social media.

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