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Climate

Where Did All the Surfable Waves Go?

Surfing is becoming an endangered sport.

A surfer and a very large wave.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Dr. Cliff Kapono sometimes still surfs the way his Indigenous Hawaiian ancestors did 1,000 years ago, on a traditional wooden board and all. But the professional surfer and molecular biologist fears his descendants might not have the same privilege. The reason is the looming scarcity of surfable waves.

While climate change could be a boon for big-wave surfers, as some have highlighted, the beloved recreational side of the sport is endangered by the shifting climate. Dramatic changes are already locked in, with rising waters swallowing surf breaks and wary communities erecting sea walls that alter the shape of the coastline. But this tension — between the masses losing access to cherished resources and the few who benefit even as they lament — is not exclusive to surfers; it’s one that bedevils almost anything related to climate adaptation.

Even waves can drown

There are several ways climate change could jeopardize surfing, but the most dramatic is also the most counterintuitive: sea level rise could drown waves.

Put simply, surfing is made possible by the interplay of water and wind. Waves form as energy from gusts passes through water and underwater obstacles (shallower ocean floor, coral reefs, even a man-made jetty) trip them up, allowing the top of a wave to crest as the water below the surface slows down. Whether it’s surfable, however, depends on everything from the break’s geography to how high the tide is on any given day.

Models of future wave conditions indicate sea level rise could change the shape of waves that generations of surfers have relied on. A2017 analysis of 105 California surf spots found that 34% are at risk of “drowning” by 2100, meaning the wave will break too close to shore or not at all. Just 5% of the state’s surf spots are expected to improve, the study found.

Erosion, which will alter the shape of coastlines, is partly to blame. But surfing’s precarity also results from the larger volume of water inherent to sea level rise. Many breaks perform best at low or medium tide; but in most places, sea level rise will push high tide higher while rendering low tide unrecognizable.

Accordingly, head of the Surfrider Foundation’s coast and climate initiative Stefanie Sekich said, “millions of people … will have their surf breaks drowned before their eyes.” Sekich herself has already seen a treasured and unnamed pocket break near San Diego swallowed up by erosion.

Climate change could also result in changes in the water quality that make surfing untenable, such as algal blooms that release toxins that kill fish and irritate swimmers’ skin.

Warmer waters also can stress the coral reefs that often help shape the most reliable surf breaks. This causes them to expel the algae living within them (“bleaching”) and leaves them at risk of dying off entirely.

“A balance and a natural flow that has existed over millennia is being disrupted as a result of human interaction,” Kapono said of this suite of effects. “And change is difficult for people. It requires either time or money, patience or adaptation.”

What’s surfing worth to a community?

Determining how to adapt to this change, however, involves hard choices about what we value and why. Surf communities vulnerable to coastal erosion are being forced to weigh the risk that homes could slip into the sea against the risk that new infrastructure could upend a chief reason people seek to live there in the first place: surfing, and the lifestyle and natural splendor that goes with it.

Nik Strong-Cvetich, who leads the non-profit Save the Waves Coalition, argues that surf breaks themselves have unappreciated economic power. In the last 70 years, surfing’s spread has transformed it from a spiritual and social practice for small island communities to a global sport. But towns like his own Santa Cruz, California, do not account for ridable waves when it comes to erecting sea walls, breakwaters, and other manmade structures along the shore, even though the waves are the main attraction for many tourists and transplants.

This so-called “armoring” of the coast via cement structures designed to simultaneously block the waves and prevent the shore’s slip into the sea can negatively impact intertidal ecosystems and even hasten beach erosion. The California Coastal Commission, charged with protecting coastal resources and regulating development, has accordingly become choosier about where this armoring is allowed; in recent cases, it has required owners of new coastal properties to waive their rights to future sea walls to protect their vulnerable developments.

Still, a cement-forward approach to adaptation, Strong-Cvetich said, is among climate change’s biggest threats to surfing, and to the ecosystems and economies that go hand-in-hand with the sport. His organization, Save the Waves, argues for nature-based solutions to sea level rise, such as dune restoration, and for legally protecting surf breaks.

This latter point is controversial. For non-surfers it can sound an awful lot like prioritizing recreation over people’s homes. But if done well, Strong-Cvetich maintains, it is possible to both protect surfing and walk back people’s exposure to environmental hazards.

Both Save the Waves and Surfrider are joining those calling for the government to fund relocating some vulnerable coastal neighborhoods. This too is quite controversial. Several California towns have already considered and shot down “managed retreat” proposals, which many affected homeowners view as jeopardizing the value of their beachfront properties. Meanwhile, a California Legislative Analyst report found that sea level rise is projected to submerge $10 billion worth of property by 2050.

The hunt is on for the next 100-footer

In the midst of any likely climate tragedy, there will be those that come out ahead. When it comes to surfers and climate change, one prominent story goes, the winners are the big-wave surfers.

For certain elite surfers, there may be some truth to this. The swells that launch the waves sky-high at breaks like Nazaré result largely from storm activity thousands of miles offshore; one of climate change’s knock-on effects is stronger hurricanes and surface winds, which cause those swells to carry even more energy within them. In fact, this has already begun to happen, with global wave power increasing 0.4% per year since 1948, according to a 2019 study.

In combination with sea level rise, this has the potential to fuel the monster waves that surfers like Garrett McNamara and Kai Lenny watch for.

Kurt Korte, vice president of forecasting for the surf report service Surfline, said the question of where new 100-footers could be found lingers in the back of his mind as his team monitors changing ocean conditions.

“When you see a storm system that does something a little bit atypical, or you see a shift in the general pattern from one winter to the next, you get … thinking about what that may mean,” Korte said. He expects that climate change makes uncovering the next Nazaré especially likely at higher altitudes: think Alaska, Western Canada, or Greenland.

This would be a boon for the extreme surfers that increasingly get the spotlight in documentaries like the glossy HBO documentary series 100 Foot Wave — and for the fans that devour footage of their work. But the rise of monster waves while gentler, warmer breaks are swallowed would represent a gradual sea change for surfing more broadly: from leisure activity to extreme sport, most accessible to those who can afford the training, equipment, and travel required, and increasingly unrecognizable to Kapono’s ancestors

But Li Erikson, a research geographer at the U.S. Geological Survey, notesher own team’s models paint a more nebulous picture of the big-wave future. While there are some places where waves are projected to grow taller (including at the higher latitudes), there are others where they are expected to shrink.

As is so often the case in conversations of the climate crisis’ winners and losers, treating bigger and better waves as a foregone conclusion betrays both a desire to simplify the phenomenon’s effects, and to focus on the not-that-bad-actually-perhaps-even-good elements of the story. While this might be an effective coping mechanism, it’s also one that threatens to distract us from adapting before it’s too late.

The reality of the surf community’s experience of climate change is one that mirrors our collective experience: A few will gain, while most will lose. For instance, the internet brims with articles on the few regions that will fare best when so much of the world weathers floods and drought and fires. (The area around the Great Lakes seems particularly promising.) And while climate change has already caused the number of people suffering from hunger in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries to more than double since 2017, a warming Siberia will see its lucky farmers able to produce new crops.

Preserving what we value in the face of climate change is complicated and often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what we stand to lose. But sticking our heads in the sand and relying on a sea wall to save us only promises to compound our grief. Adaptation is the task of stemming the losses, especially while resources still abound.

“There’s a finite number of people that are really impacted by the big wave stuff,” Korte said. But when it comes to the future of the smaller coastal breaks that have lured an increasing number of surfers into the water, he added, millions stand to lose.

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    Lisa Martine Jenkins profile image

    Lisa Martine Jenkins

    Lisa Martine Jenkins is a climate journalist based in Brooklyn. She previously wrote for Protocol, and her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Associated Press, and Civil Eats, among others.

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