Year 2050

Why Surfers Should Worry About Climate Change

By 2050, surf spots around the world will have been impacted by rising seas.

by Mike Pearl
26 June 2017, 7:26pm

This story is part of VICE's ongoing look at how climate change will have altered the world by the year 2050. Read more about the project here.

In many ways, sea-level rise brought about by climate change will be painfully obvious. For instance, according to Risky Business—a 2014 report commissioned by billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg—by 2050, $15 billion in property value will be erased in Florida as land gets swallowed by the intruding sea.

More subtle effects of the changing planet will be everywhere, however. Not far from those drowned homes, surfers may wonder where the waves went.

"Surf spots are going to disappear," Dan Reineman told me, summarizing the findings of a study he published earlier this year that focused on California surfing. Reineman is a lecturer at Stanford University's School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences, and a lifelong surfer. His study says that by 2100, sea-level rise could be an existential threat to about 18 percent of California's surf spots, and could cause 16 percent to be worse. By 2050, surfers will have just started feeling these effects. (Interestingly, Reineman also says climate change may also improve about 5 percent of surf spots.)

Climate change's effects vis a vis surfing are still a developing area for researchers like Reineman, and things like the quality of breaks as well as the overall surfing experience are highly subjective. Reineman's findings come from a survey of California surfers reporting their own experiences, but they square with basic logic, according to John Weber, the Surfrider Foundation's Mid-Atlantic regional manager.

Assuming the sea levels were somehow rising irrespective of human activity (and they're not), the number of naturally occurring spots that are ideal for surfing wouldn't be impacted much by climate change (although without humans, what would be the point?). Spots with an abundance of perfect breaks would just move inland. Weber said that perhaps "half the spots that are good are gonna go away," but that we would see "just as many new ones added."

In reality, however, Weber told me, the rising coastline will "run into houses, seawalls, street ends—stuff that's not movable, and it's probably not going to be as good for surf breaks. That means there'll probably be more loss than gain."


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To understand how coastlines change, and how that impacts surfing, we can look to the recent past. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy moved enough water and land around to reshape the coastlines of New York and New Jersey in some spots. New York's Fire Island, for instance, is a long, narrow strip of land just off Long Island. Sandy opened up at least three inlets, carving a trench that allowed the bay waters and sediment to drain into the open sea, leading to perfect, surfable curls in the nearby water. The National Parks Service immediately moved to close two of these breaches, but when it moved to close one, at a secluded spot called Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, surfers spoke up.

"'There's gonna be a good break on either side of this breach, so leave it!'" Weber recalls saying. Other environmentalists provided other arguments for leaving the breach alone—including the fact that it flushed out pollution and pulled in fresh water. So that breach has, so far, stayed. But the same can't be said for a similar spot near Mantoloking, New Jersey. Sure, that would have made for good surfing, but more important factors won out: "There was the highway, and people's houses were there, so they closed it up lickety-split," Weber told me.

So it will go in the future: As the coastline erodes due to climate change, new and natural surf spots will be created, but fewer will be allowed to exist. "There'll be more people crowding the remaining surf spots," Reineman told me. Indeed, there will always be open stretches of beach, but some of the secluded, secret treasures that surfers cherish the most will be wiped out in the name of preserving coastal real estate.

On the coast of California, Reineman told me, some of the best surfing is at low tide. One of the spots in San Diego where he learned to surf as a kid was a narrow stretch of beach in front of a row of bluffs with multimillion-dollar homes on top. "In all likelihood, the homeowners will not let those bluffs erode much further. Eventually the beach will disappear, and that surf spot won't ever break anymore," he lamented.

Other reports offer more bad news: In the long run, climate change is expected to slowly shrink waves in most of the Northern Hemisphere, according to a report from 2013, but waves may simultaneously get taller off places like the east coast of Australia. But there's another problem with those Southern Hemisphere waves: Many of them are reef breaks—spots where waves break over coral reefs, rather than at the beach—and coral reefs are rapidly dying from bleaching, an effect related to climate change.

The deaths of corals have devastating and far-reaching effects that have nothing at all to do with surfing. By 2050, the rocklike coral structures that make up coral reefs will likely still be there even if most of the corals are dead. That means those wave breaks will still occur for the foreseeable future, but like so many non-apocalyptic effects of climate change, all that dead coral is going to be a buzzkill by 2050.

"I love to surf on a reef that's full of color and fish," Weber told me. Without all that life down there, at least some of the joy will be sucked out of surfing in that spot. Then again, Weber acknowledged that those dead reefs could lead to fewer sharks, but only, he said, "because there's no fish."

"Maybe that'd be a plus," he added.

Reineman said at times, surfers will likely point to climate change as the cause of better surf: "You could say those swells because of that storm system were potentially stronger because of climate change exacerbation." But gauging the effects of climate change by the size of waves would be deceptive.

"When we're talking about how we manage the coastline, we're talking about existential concerns," Reineman said. "We're not talking about the waves on average being a little bit bigger or a little bit smaller. We're talking about whether they exist at all," he added.

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