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Shrinking shores: Beaches need protection from coastal squeeze

A new study has revealed that the world’s beaches and dunes are under significant threat due to a phenomenon known as “coastal squeeze.” This issue stems from the encroachment of roads and buildings on these natural landscapes.

Coastal squeeze has adverse effects on biodiversity, drinking water supplies, and our protection against rising sea levels. However, the research provides a glimmer of hope, showing that beaches and dunes can be effectively safeguarded through the designation of nature reserves.

The study was led by a team of experts from the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, University of Groningen, Utrecht University, TU Delft, and the Dutch Forestry Commission.

Startling reality

The research highlights a startling reality: on average, a mere 390-meter walk from any given point on a beach leads to the nearest road or building. 

This proximity, while seemingly convenient for beachgoers, actually spells disaster for the environment. 

Vital functions 

Beaches and dunes serve as crucial natural barriers against flooding and important habitats for diverse wildlife. 

But as these areas become increasingly boxed in by human infrastructure on one side and rising sea levels on the other, their ability to perform these vital functions is severely compromised.

Extensive data analysis

To quantify the extent of coastal squeeze, the team used a combination of previous measurement data from TU Delft. 

The researchers conducted an extensive survey, measuring the straight-line distance from the coastline to the nearest paved road or building along all the sandy beaches globally. This meticulous process involved 235,469 individual measurements.

Key findings

The study revealed that on a global scale, human infrastructure is alarmingly close to the sea, with the average distance to the first building or paved road being just 390 meters. 

The situation is even more dire in densely populated regions like the Netherlands (210 meters) and France (30 meters). Europe emerges as the continent with the most constrained beaches and dunes, averaging a distance of only 130 meters, in contrast to Oceania’s 2.8 kilometers.

Future outlook

Looking ahead, the issue of coastal squeeze is expected to worsen due to rising sea levels. In a natural scenario, beaches and dunes would migrate inland to adapt, but the presence of buildings and roads obstructs this natural process. 

The researchers project that by 2100, up to 30 percent of the world’s beaches and dunes could be eroded or submerged.

Nature reserves offer hope

The study, however, offers hope that the establishment of nature reserves could help prevent the negative impacts of coastal squeeze. Areas with protected status exhibit a significantly greater distance between infrastructure and the coastline. 

“Encouragingly, we find that nature reserves relieve squeezing by 4-7 times. Yet, at present only 16% of world’s sandy shores have a protected status. We therefore advocate the incorporation of nature protection into spatial planning policies,” wrote the study authors.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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