Today, Earth’s atmosphere is polluted with stronger concentrations of planet-warming carbon dioxide than any point in the past three million years. The increased amount of greenhouse gasses trapped in Earth’s atmosphere is causing global climate change, the effects of which are altering coastlines and surf spots in dramatic ways.
In some cases, the consequences of climate change may destroy the world’s best surfing destinations. The last time CO2 levels were sustained at this concentration was 3-5 million years ago, during the Pliocene era. During that time period, global sea levels rose up to 39.92 meters higher than today, average global temperatures increased by 3–4 °C, temperatures at the north and south poles increased by 10 °C, and lush savannas and woodlands blanketed what is now North African desert.
Although sea and temperature level rise is a gradual effect, as history shows, unrestrained climate change will create a world surfers won’t recognize.
What Is Climate Change?
NASA defines climate change as the culmination of a broad range of global or regional climate patterns and phenomena, which are created primarily by burning fossil fuels that add heat-trapping gases like methane and CO2 to Earth’s atmosphere.
Unlike weather conditions, which are brief, localized atmospheric changes, NASA states climate change is measured in seasons, years, and decades and refers to the long-term regional or global patterns of temperature, humidity, and rainfall.
How Does Climate Change Affect Beaches And Coastlines?
About 40 percent of the global population lives within 100 kilometers of a coastal area. Humans have already altered and stressed coastal environments by overexploiting natural resources with agricultural, industrial, and residential development. The phenomena caused by climate change is compounding these coastal stresses and remodeling the world’s oceanic ecosystems and coastlines.
Climate change is already affecting coastal communities in eight ways:
- Sea Level Rise
- Coastal Flooding
- Shoreline Erosion
- Increased Precipitation
- Storm Surges
- Oceanic Acidification
- Water Pollution
- Warmer Oceans
As the world continues warming, the adverse effects of these phenomena will become more frequent and more severe.
What Does This Mean For Surfers?
On a global scale, climate change could eradicate some popular surf spots, alter the wave break patterns of others, and create brand new surf locations. The effects and severity of each outcome depend on the location and how aggressive local communities work to quell climate change. Take California as an example, where surfing thrives as an iconic cultural and economic force.
If climate change continues unabated, by 2100, sea level rise could wipe out about 18 percent of California’s surf spots; additionally, 16 percent of the remaining locations could be worse for surfers, and 5 percent might improve, according to a study about climate change’s effects on wave patterns.
The changes will become most apparent by observing how waves break. Locations where surfing is best during high tide will transform, and the waves will break best on low tide. Surf spots where the low tide currently has the best breaks will no longer have wave breaks.
While California’s waves disappear, the study states that sea level rise will create new surfing opportunities in Indonesia, Antarctica, and Australia’s east coast, each of which will have swells higher than today’s average.
However, even in locations where the surf improves, surfers will discover beach access is negatively affected by climate-related sea level rise, coastal flooding, water pollution, storm surges, and shoreline erosion. These phenomena will likely make surf zones narrower and cause even more changes to surf-tide relationships.
Changes in wave break patterns and beach access are only the tip of a melting iceberg. As an article in Surfline explains, climate change will force surfing communities to confront other indirect environmental woes that make lackluster surf seem unimportant in comparison.
Today, we only observe glimpses of these climate phenomena. But if atmospheric CO2 ppm continues to remain at Pliocene concentrations, these changes may become our future.
5 Surfing Countries Tackling Climate Change
To minimize the global effects of a warming climate, 195 countries in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) signed the Paris Climate Agreement. The agreement’s long-term goal is to limit global average temperature increases to no hotter than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial temperature averages.
Countries with world-class surfing are approaching Paris Climate Agreement responsibilities in different ways. Some countries, like Costa Rica, are investing heavily in renewable energy and curtailing fossil fuel dependency. Whereas other countries, such as Australia, continue to invest in coal and other fuel resources that increase CO2 levels and further exacerbate climate change and its effects.
Below are five UNFCCC countries that are popular among surfers and aggressively leading the way to combat climate change, as reported in the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index and the Climate Action Tracker.
Costa Rica, with a population of 5 million residents, intends to be the world’s first carbon neutral country. By 2050, Costa Rica plans to eliminate its fossil fuel use and restore and grow its diverse jungle ecosystem. These actions should help preserve Costa Rica’s world-famous beaches and surf spots, which are affected by pollution, ocean acidification, and climate-related sea level rise.
Popular surfing destinations in Costa Rica are:
- Osa Peninsula (Dominical, Drake Bay, Pavones)
- Jacó (Playa Esterillos, Playa Hermosa)
- Tamarindo (Witches Rock, Ollies Point)
- Santa Teresa
Morocco is the second best-performing country in 2019’s Climate Performance Change Index report. The country, with a population of 35 million residents, recently completed the world’s largest solar plant. Morocco is on pace to achieve its goal of installing enough renewable energy to meet 42 percent of its energy demands by 2020 and 52 percent by 2030. These changes are necessary to combat sea level rise and pollution, which affect Morocco’s numerous beaches and surf spots.
Popular surfing destinations in Morocco include:
- Taghazout (Killer Point, Anchor Point, Hash Point, Mysteries)
- Imsouane (Cathedral Point, The Bay)
Surfing at Portugal’s beaches is among the country’s most important tourism lifelines. Climate change-related coastal erosion is affecting many of the popular beaches, with some shorelines retreating up to 100 meters. The country is combining ambitious renewable energy goals with other shoreline rehabilitation projects to combat the issue.
While the beaches still exist, some popular surfing destinations in Portugal are:
- Nazaré (North Canyon)
- Peniche (Supertubos)
- Ericeira (Coxos, Cave, Ribeira d’Ilhas)
- Algarve (Praia da Arrifana), Lisbon/Cascais (Carcavelos)
The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is susceptible to climate-related sea level rise, which threatens to eliminate beaches, homes, and roads throughout a third of the country’s coastline. Currently, the U.K. has legislation that requires the country to meet 80 percent of its energy needs from renewable resources by 2050. In 2019, the country began discussions to increase that requirement to 100 percent.
If the U.K. can meet its goals, some of its popular surfing destinations should be preserved. These include:
- England (Cornwall, Fistral Beach, Porthleven, Watergate Bay, Sennen Cove, Bournemouth)
- Scotland (Pease Bay, Thurso East)
- Wales (Llangennith, Porth Neigwl/Hell’s Mouth)
In 2018, the Philippines pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2030. The country, with a population of 104 million residents, intends to reduce carbon emissions from its energy, transport, waste, forestry, and industry sectors. As a surfing hotspot, these changes can help preserve the Philippines’ beaches and reduce pollution.
Popular surfing destinations in the Philippines are:
- Siargao Island (Cloud Nine, Llorente)
- La Union (San Juan, Sunset, Car-rille)
- Zambales (San Antonio, San Felipe, San Narciso)
- Luzon (Puraran, Bagasbas Beach, Baler)
5 Surfing Countries Behind the Curve on Climate Change
Although scientists have sounded alarms about the negative ecological, economic, and sociological effects we’ll encounter due to a changing planet, some countries are not committing many — if any — resources to preventing greenhouse gas emissions.
Below are the five countries doing the worst job at tackling climate change, as reported in the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index and the Climate Action Tracker.
The United States
Beginning in 2016, the United States reversed course in its fight against climate change. In the last three years, the country pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and deregulated many climate-focused policies for the oil, gas, and coal industries. However, certain states are taking action to tackle renewable energy investment in lieu of the federal government’s position on climate change. Many of these states are home to some of the most popular surf spots in the country. And some of those spots, like Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, may disappear entirely because of sea level rise.
The most popular surfing destinations in the United States are in:
- California (San Clemente, Huntington Beach, La Jolla, Newport Beach, Malibu)
- New York (90th Street Rockaways, Montauk)
- Hawaii (North Shore and Waikiki on Oahu, Peahi and Hookipa on Maui, Hanalei Bay on Kauai)
Australia recently reversed its climate-fighting stance and reduced its effort to prevent or combat the effects of climate change. The Australian government has no comprehensive emissions reduction policy, including transport emissions, and has no plans to stop using coal. Because most of the country’s populace lives along the coastline, Australia is among the most-affected countries by climate change. Pollution, sea level rise, erosion, ocean acidification, and drought may affect Australia and many of its famous beaches and surf spots.
Popular surfing destinations in Australia include:
- Sydney (Bondi Beach, Manly, Freshwater Beach, Long Reef Bombora)
- Margaret River (Surfer’s Point, Mainbreak)
- Byron Bay (The Pass, The Wreck, Tallows)
South Africa is among the countries most affected by climate change, particularly drought and increased temperatures.
The country joined the Paris Climate Agreement and intends to have carbon neutral electricity generation by 2050. However, the country is late to adopting climate change initiatives and is behind the pack of most other countries. The coastline and surf destinations will be among the hardest hit areas, as ocean temperatures rise and fish stocks diminish.
Some popular surfing destinations in South Africa are:
- Jeffrey’s Bay
- Durban (Battery Beach, New Pier, Wedge, North Beach, Baggies)
- Southern Kwazulu Natal (Lucien, St. Mike’s, Umzumbe, Happy Wanderers, Green Point)
Indonesia is home to four of the world’s most polluted rivers and produces 15 percent of the world’s plastic waste, much of which pollutes Indonesia’s coastlines and rivers. Instead of investing in renewable energy resources, Indonesia’s climate-damaging emissions are projected to double by 2030. The country is relying heavily on coal, and in the next 10 years, Indonesia plans to produce nearly twice as much energy from coal than from renewable resources. The resulting pollution and environmental damage may ravage Indonesia’s popular beaches and surf locations.
Popular surfing destinations in Indonesia include:
- Bali (Uluwatu, Kuta, Bukit, Balangan, Dreamland, Medewi)
- Java (Cimaja Beach, Panaitan Island, Sawarna, Turtles)
- Mentawai Islands (Lances Left, Macaronis, Telescopes)
Although Ireland recently achieved the world’s first Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill, which sells more than €300m in fossil fuel investments in 150 companies, the country is still among the worst offenders for poor renewable energy policies. If Ireland can’t meet its Paris Climate Agreement target, the country may end up facing sea level rise, river and coastal flooding, ocean acidification, and adverse effects on water quality, which all affect Ireland’s best surfing spots.
The most popular surfing destinations in Ireland are in:
- Donegal (Rossnowlagh, Bundoran)
- Aileen’s Wave
- Londonderry (Castlerock)
- Mayo (Carrowniskey, Achill Island)
How You Can Help Fight Against Climate Change
The effects of climate change have already progressed to the point where surf spots are going to be irrevocably different, based on a IPCC report. However, it’s still possible to minimize how severely seas, coastlines, and coastal habitats will degrade.
Governments and companies that spearhead adopting the recommendations in the Paris Climate Agreement will have the biggest effects on climate change. But local communities can have positive effects, too. If surfers make meaningful choices about where they surf and how they spend their money, the community as a whole can help conserve the environment and preserve their favorite surf spots.
Surf in Countries Fighting Climate Change
Surfing tourism is a significant economic force for many towns, particularly in poorer nations. When surfers hear of high-quality surf breaks, the ensuing tourism bolsters economic growth by 2.2 percentage points a year, according to a 2017 study that evaluated the economic benefits of 5,000 surf break locations in 146 countries.
If it’s financially feasible, plan surf trips to countries that are supporting efforts to combat climate change. The extra economic surge can provide additional resources to support climate-saving policies.
Additionally, be a vocal supporter of local and national policies these countries enact. Email and call politicians and policy representatives to reinforce that the efforts to conserve beaches, water quality, and ocean coral are well-received and worth the expense.
Promote Farm-to-Table Ethics and Reduce Food Waste
The agriculture industry is a key player in climate change. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency states that agriculture contributes nine percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., with livestock accounting for roughly four percent of emissions.
Farmers, restaurants and consumers can decrease the agriculture industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by shifting the industry to support local farm-to-table ethics. This would reduce the number of factory farms, improve animal welfare, decrease the total number of livestock, and decrease transportation costs and emissions. Plus, because local farmers can better meet supply-and-demand economics, farmers and consumers can reduce the amount of food they waste.
In the United States alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 30-40 percent of all food purchased or produced is wasted. In 2010, the USDA estimated that approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food was wasted across the U.S. Most of this food decomposes in landfills, which are now the third-largest producer of methane in the country. Methane is 30-times more potent as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas than CO2.
Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
Musician Jack Johnson may be among the most prolific surfers who actively fights for environmental conservation, especially in coastal communities. He founded two charities that offer similar messages: to preserve our beaches and oceans, we must actively reduce the amount of waste we produce, reuse (or repair) products we’ve already purchased that still have value, and correctly recycle everything we can (especially plastic bottles).
Some surf destinations have already taken steps to reduce plastic waste. Costa Rica, for example, has banned plastic straws.
For surfers, the “Three R’s” can mean supporting community gardens and local, organic farmers when grabbing lunch, recycling your old surfboards, and repairing ratty board shorts rather than buying new ones. (Some environmentally-conscious companies, like Patagonia, will repair worn-out clothes they made for free.)
Simply reducing the amount of surf products you purchase and repairing or reusing old gear can help reduce the environmental toll of product manufacturing and waste, especially for surf clothing.
The textile industry produces 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent carbon emissions per year, which is more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping, according to a report in the science journal Nature. More than 60 percent of textiles are used to produce clothes, most of which are manufactured in coal-reliant China and India.
The resulting fallout is that the clothing industry produces an estimated five percent of global greenhouse gases, and nearly 60 percent of clothing is disposed of within a year of its production, the report states.
Shop With Environmentally Conscious Surf Companies
In addition to purchasing fewer surf products and making your current gear last longer, shopping with surfing companies that use environmentally sustainable (and traceable) product lines can help shift industry mentality toward a more sustainable future.
Here are a few of our favorite sustainable surf brands:
Plus, if you travel often to go surfing, choose surfing companies that are committed to sustainability on local and global scales.
Support Charities that Preserve Coastal Ecosystems
The adverse effects of climate change are a global problem, and we need a global solution to stave off the worst outcomes. Local, national, and international charities are an excellent way to support people who are actively preserving the environment and your favorite surf spots.
Here is a list of our favorite charities:
Whether you’re a volunteer or provide a monetary donation, your help aids the people best-equipped to make a positive impact.
Riding the Wave of Climate Change
Based on the available science, we’re running out of time to prevent returning to the unrecognizable climate from aeons past.
Regardless of how aggressive countries and communities are about preventing the planet from warming by 2 °C by 2050, surfers will witness the effects of climate change firsthand. We’ll have to contend with warmer oceans, less wildlife, bleached coral reefs, coastal erosion, and changes in wave breaks.
But if we come together and support countries, communities, and policies that are fighting for renewable resources and healthier oceans, we can ride the waves climate change gives us.
Together, we can create a surfing culture that supports the oceans and coastal communities we all depend on — creating a happier, healthier future for the lifestyle we love.