NEGRIL, Jamaica – Tourists from around the world are drawn to a stretch of palm-fringed shoreline known as "Seven Mile Beach," a crescent of white sand along the turquoise waters of Jamaica's western coast. But the sands are slipping away and Jamaicans fear the beach, someday, will need a new nickname.
Each morning, groundskeepers with metal rakes carefully tend Negril's resort-lined shore. Some sections, however, are barely wide enough for a decent-sized beach towel and the Jamaican National Environment and Planning Agency says sand is receding at a rate of more than a meter (yard) a year.
"The beach could be totally lost within 30 years," said Anthony McKenzie, a senior director at the agency.
Shrinking coastline long has raised worry for the area's environmental and economic future. Now, the erosion is expected to worsen as a result of climate change, and a hint of panic is creeping through this laid back village, one of the top destinations in a country where a quarter of all jobs depend on tourism.
"If the water takes over this beach, well, that's the end of the tourists," Lyn Dennison said as she tended to her beachside stand selling jewelry and wooden statues of roosters, horses and other animals.
For much of its history, Negril was an isolated fishing outpost. In the late 1960s, it began to draw American hippies lured by the scenery and cheap marijuana. As its fame grew, its charms were discovered by hard-partying spring breakers and more sober-minded visitors. Resorts such as Sandals and the Grand Lido went up and the number of annual visitors grew from about 40,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 in 2012.
Fearful of losing their main draw, some alarmed hoteliers are pressing the government to refill the beach with dredged sand, a pricey step many experts say is a temporary fix at best.
Jamaica is readying plans to build submerged breakwaters it hopes will absorb wave energy and slow loss of shoreline, using an initial $5.4 million in grants from a U.N. climate change convention.
The breakwater project in Negril, which one study says could cost as much as $77 million over the course of 80 years, offers a glimpse of what may lie ahead for other coastal towns. Caribbean islands, many already heavily in debt, will be faced with the choice of trying to armor shores with seawalls and breakwaters, or conducting a costly retreat from seas that the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says could rise by nearly a meter (yard) by the end of the century.
Beaches across the region are being transformed by a variety of factors: shoreline development; surges from increasingly intense storms; coastal pollution that affects marine life; coral reefs crumbling in warmer waters. The changes are particularly worrisome for the Caribbean because of its dependence on sea-and-sand tourism. In addition, roughly 70 percent of the Caribbean's people and much of its essential infrastructure are situated along coasts.
The region is facing an existential threat, said Ulrich Trotz, science adviser for the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center, which provides policy advice and guidelines to more than a dozen member nations and territories.
"We don't have much time. Action now is imperative if the Caribbean is to survive as we know it," Trotz said in a phone interview from Antigua.
According to the World Bank, some areas of the island of St. Vincent have lost up to 30 meters (yards) of beach over the last nine years. A recent study by the bank forecasts that the Dominican Republic's capital of Santo Domingo, where many residents live along the Ozama River and in its flood plain, will be one of five global cities most affected by climate change over the next 35 years.
Building seawalls to protect from an encroaching sea, an approach that has seen limited success in places like California, has been one response on the island of Barbados. But in many cases, scientists say allowing shores to retreat or bolstering beaches with vegetation and restoring wetlands could be smarter. Last year, Cuba razed seaside buildings to restore shorelines to something approaching its natural state.
"For many beaches, adaptation measures such as bringing in sand and creating seawalls will only slow the inevitable, and at a significant and continual financial cost," said Jason Spensley of the U.N. Climate Technology Center and Network.
Environmental experts and civil planners say leaders across the region need to adapt for the long term. City developers could adjust how they zone, improve enforcement of marine regulations and better plan water systems, for example. Beachfront developers could be encouraged to protect dunes and anchoring vegetation such as seagrasses, better manage coastal runoff pollution and push construction farther back from the sea.
"We just don't seem to be prepared to do any of it. It's as if we do not see what Negril has become, what the dangers to its future are," said Diana McCaulay, CEO of the nonprofit Jamaica Environment Trust.
But Shelia McDonald-Miller, program manager for the government's breakwater project, said she is confident the offshore structures of boulders will slow Negril's erosion. She expects construction to start next year.
Simon Mitchell, a geologist at the island's University of the West Indies, says governments need to think further ahead. In low-lying Negril, for example, there is "no doubt" that hotels perched along the beach will be deluged in coming decades, he said.
"We need to be looking 50 years into the future," he said. "We can't keep going into places with pristine beaches, immediately put in hotels and then end up with the same problem in 10 years' time because those beaches are eroding away."
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