So Should We In Mexico Be Worried About The Sea Rising?


Some people think Mexico’s most beautiful beaches are going to be goners due to global warming in as little as 45 years. Others, those who saw what Odile and some lesser storms have done to our own Medano Beach, think that beach will be gone in way less time than that.

Several studies have shown that climate changes are very real, potentially devastating, and move faster than we’re even predicting, and so, it’s no surprise that the Baja beaches will be affected. Of course we’re not as bad off as low lying areas of the south Pacific nor Thailand, or even the delta area of New Orleans, but many of our beaches are not so steep as to be free of concern. Could be that bargain property you bought on the up side of the highway will be ocean front.

More seriously threatened though, are the Mexican beaches of the Yucatan peninsula. Think Cancun. That’s a flat area that doesn’t enjoy our sloping geography and they are under serious and immediate threat. The Yucatan Peninsula is very dependent on tourism and the employment it creates, and sea level rise puts this region and its tourist industry at risk, unless people make a plan for the coming higher water levels.

Much of the critical infrastructure for tourism is close to sea level, including hotels, resorts, roads, airports, and piers for cruise ships. Although a modest sea level rise would not permanently inundate a large percentage of land, the real estate lost would be some of the most valuable in the region.

Rising sea levels cause three main concerns for the tourism industry. One is beach erosion–the washing away of the warm sands that draw tourists to the region. A less frequent problem—but one that causes more destruction—is storm surge from hurricanes. Storm surges occur when strong winds pile up water against the shoreline. These surges can wipe out a beach in a day, and the water can flood and damage property.

Some places have already attempted to repair beaches lost to erosion and storm surges, but this can be a very expensive proposition. Record–breaking Hurricane Wilma hit the Riviera Maya in Mexico, including Cancun, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel in 2005. The storm damaged a large percentage of the hotels in Cancun and washed away the beach completely, leaving water lapping at hotel foundations.

Mexico tried a quick fix of the beaches in 2006, but waves washed away the new sand relatively quickly. Next Mexico launched a $70 million project to restore about 7 miles of beach, at a cost of $10 million per mile. However, the ocean has already swept away as much as 8 percent of the new sand—even without any major storms. And sea level rise that has already occurred is making average storm waves riding in on high tide more erosive than the waves of 30 years ago. And as sea level rises, storm surges from hurricanes will be higher. For example, the average storm surge during a hurricane in the Caribbean is now 3 to 4 feet above sea level. If sea level were to rise by 4 feet because of global warming, as scientists predict could happen, a storm surge from a hurricane would be that much higher, and could flood and damage homes, resorts, and other businesses farther inland.

The Mexican government is on this. Blanca Mendoza,  a scientist from UNAM’s Institute of Geophysics in Mexico City, points out the level of the sea has risen nearly eight inches in the last 115 years, and in this century, could rise up to three feet.  Antonina Boncheva, a teacher and researcher from  the UABCS university, stated that climate change could do worse things than drown the beaches. Drought and rain can both increase, causing corn, rice and wheat production to fall between five and ten percent. Think tacos and beans and rice here. Muy importante.

Then there’s the local fauna, and let’s not forget about our fragile coral, rich and complex ecosystems located in tropical oceans with high salinity where they thrive on good sun and currents that drag plankton, which has moved farther north seeking better weather conditions; thus making it harder for coral to survive.  Cabo Pulmo is a good example of this: some say it has deteriorated in the past years, although that could be from a number of things, such as fish poaching.

We all have a lot to lose with this climate change stuff, so let’s not think that living in Mexico insulates us from the reality of our responsibility. Who wants to sit at Mango Deck with our feet in the water? Well, actually, that part wouldn’t be so hard to take.