My beach isn’t the sort that comes to mind when you’re planning a late-winter getaway. There are no beach towels, umbrella drinks, salt-kissed tans, or brightly colored swimwear. At my beach, there’s only the smudged horizon, a gray blurring of sea and sky, and the winter-gold sea grasses that bend toward the sand.
As I approach, mist films my glasses. A stiff southwesterly wind pummels my ears. When I reach the sands, stretching north and south as far as I can see, I’m the only human in sight.
To walk the beach is to walk the margins, a between-space as dynamic and unpredictable as the ocean itself. Each day, each hour, each minute brings something new. Today I examine a lanky tree torn from some distant shore, roots intact, branches shorn, bark weathered beyond recognition. I bend toward an array of patterns, nature-etched hieroglyphics in the sand: wrinkled lines, dimpled troughs, rivulets that squiggle with the ambition of a river. Within hours, they’ll be gone. At my beach I feel small, in the same good way I felt small when I lived near a glacier. I need that feeling, a reminder my frets and worries are small, too.
When I left Alaska, I knew the glaciers were disappearing. I didn’t know the beaches I moved to were disappearing, too. According to a study published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, half the world’s sandy beaches will likely be gone by the end of the century, due to global warming.
My beach is common property. Thanks to the foresight of Tom McCall, a Republican governor who in 1967 recognized the harm development would cause to the coastline, Oregon’s beaches belong to all of Oregon’s people. We share our beaches with kelp, seaweed, razor clams, and crabs. For thousands of years, this bounty has sustained the indigenous people of the Northwest coast, who fondly say that when the tide is in, the table is set.
Erosion and human development also threaten our beaches. Geomorphologically complex, as scientists say, beach sands are made to move, behaving as if they know when they’re not welcome. As we construct high-rises to accommodate the suntan set, sands tend to settle offshore, diminishing a beach’s capacity to recover from erosion.
Sometimes the sands rebel. Early in the twentieth century, when homes and hotels first encroached on the beaches of northwest Oregon, sands blown by winter storms nearly buried these structures every winter. To stabilize the sand, the New Deal–era Civilian Conservation Corps planted European grasses. The intervention worked for a time, especially when coupled with McCall’s ban on beach development. Now climate change is intensifying our winter storms, and they last longer. This year, storms have buried much of the CCC grass in sand.
I was a shy, 10-year-old child of the industrial Midwest when I first saw an ocean beach. A century earlier, another young Midwesterner first arrived at the beach that would change his life—Henry Wood Elliott. The 22-year-old came on assignment with the Smithsonian to study a species of seal that swarmed by the millions over the shores of a remote Alaskan island.
Fur hunters soon drove the seals to the brink of extinction. Aside from well-to-do sportsmen who wanted to ensure they never lacked game to shoot, no one much cared about wildlife. But the prospect of his seals disappearing was more than Elliott could bear. Mocked for his love of the creatures, he only doubled down, advocating for their survival amid a tangle of corporate and government interests—and losing his livelihood, his savings, and his marriage in the process. After decades of work, he helped usher in an international treaty that saved the seals, setting a course for wildlife protections that have saved many more species.
As I walk my beach, I think of Elliott—a man at the margins. I can’t decide whether I covet or fear his tenacity, his willingness to risk all to save what he loved.
As much artist as naturalist, Elliott used his renderings of the seals to stir public passions. He also worked the practical angle, decrying the loss of the seals as a resource, the economic impact of their extinction. I get this. If my beach disappeared, I’d feel as if someone had shorn off a piece of my soul. But to save it—to save all our beaches—I understand that we must talk of the costs and benefits associated with these sand-filled margins. Most of the world’s population lives along coastlines, and beaches protect these sprawling cities from storm surges. The beach towels, the umbrella drinks, and the brightly colored swimwear also have value, as those who profit from recreation and tourism will attest.
To shore up their beaches, coastal cities are building seawalls and trucking in sand. But as with so much of what we do to nature, such alterations have a way of ushering in unintended consequences. Down the coast from my beach, some enterprising types in the 1920s built an upscale resort community they called Bayocean, featuring a grand hotel, oceanfront cottages, and a seawater natatorium to draw wealthy tourists to the coast. But when the Army Corps of Engineers built a jetty to the north, new currents carried sands to places they hadn’t gone before, forming a new beach over and around and atop the resort town, erasing nearly all signs of development.
Even where nature prevails, human intrusion persists. I may be the only person who walks my beach today, but my fellow humans assert their presence through their abandoned trash. Some is the detritus of partygoers: a red plastic lighter, a beer can slit open along the side, an emptied energy drink. To carry out this garbage, I stuff it into an abandoned cardboard box that once held the sort of foil-packaged juices that children tote to school. “All About Awesome” reads the promotional material printed on the box.
Picking up beach trash is a Sisyphean task, and it does nothing to put a dent in the microplastics that litter our beaches. Even worse is the human detritus of emissions that spurs climate change—waste that can’t be plucked up or sifted out or even readily observed. The prospect of reversing this human-made threat feels as fuzzy and indistinct as the wooly wall of gray that descends from the sky around me. I have my solar panels, my electric car. With like-minded friends, I’ve helped launch a #ClimateUnity campaign to advance legislation that could curb the threat to our beaches. But the misinformation, the disregard of science, the get-it-all-have-it-now culture of entire industries built upon the right to emit are powerful forces.
The marvel of our beaches, and also their potential undoing, lies in their ephemeral nature. If only they would stand still, like mountains or monuments, or even erode a bit more slowly, like canyons. Then we could, with a change in political fortunes, put some boundaries around them, preserve them.
But the essential vulnerability of a beach is a message to us. Be awake, it says. Be alive. Clarity matters, but it’s not enough. We must also love—and on that love, act.