Why you should care
Because at the rate we're warming the Earth, we might soon need to rethink our holiday plans.
Surrey resident Charles S. regularly vacations on the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles southwest of the U.K. mainland. He cherishes the remote emptiness, the idyllic beaches and (sometimes) warm summer weather and seawater. Unless Greta Thunberg has her way, the Scillies are only going to get hotter. While it’s tempting to view them as the next Ibiza or Mykonos — Charles is horrified at the thought — pinpointing the beach resorts of the future is a sketchy business.
Climate change is already affecting how we live — in most cases for the worse. But for those who can afford it, global warming could also transform how we vacation. With coastlines submerging and already balmy destinations becoming swelteringly unbearable, where are the vacation hot spots (or cool spots) of the future?
Which brings us back to our Scilly question. Water supply is already scarce on the islands, says Charles, who “has to pay every time [he] shower[s]” at his preferred campsite. What’s more, the flat nature of the islands makes them especially susceptible to rising sea levels — according to some worst-case projections of melting ice, we could see a 14-meter surge within a few hundred years, says Dr. Peter Johnston of the University of Cape Town’s Climate System Analysis Group. In 20 years, the Scillies will probably be balmier and more desirable than they are now. But in 200 years they could well be reduced to a few rocky outcrops.
Islands are soft targets for climate change. Especially the pancake-flat atolls that are home to many of the world’s most gorgeous beaches. Nations like the Maldives, Seychelles and Marshall Islands are in real danger of drowning. As are sections of Tahiti, the Caribbean, Indonesia … There’s no positive way to spin this potential catastrophe, but islands have always come and gone.
Even moderate rises could still create new beach towns, especially along flattish coastlines.
Cape Town — the city both Johnston and I call home — already features stunning beaches and a dramatic peninsula. But if that 14-meter rise comes to pass, the pen-insula (“almost island,” if your Latin is rusty) could become a real island of wine farms and boutique coffee roasteries with Table Mountain its dazzling centerpiece. Lovely for some, but not so kwaai for the almost 2 million, mostly low-income people whose homes and shanties would be 40 feet under.
Sea level rises of this magnitude will only occur if both the Greenland Ice Cap and West Antarctic Ice Sheet melt. The good news is that cutting emissions drastically could keep both caps icy. But we’d best act now because arresting the melting process is like “trying to stop an oil tanker,” says Johnston.
Putting the brakes on climate change starts with traveling less and reducing our carbon dioxide emissions, so we’ll have to keep things local as much as possible.
Even moderate rises could still create new beach towns, especially along flattish coastlines. Myrtle Beach might be South Carolina’s hottest address today, but in 2119 the Atlantic could be lapping at the porches of Conway’s main street, 15 miles inland.
Forgetting about the rising tide for a minute, the world is definitely getting hotter across the board. Increases of “between 3C and 6C by the end of the century” are, says Johnston, “entirely feasible.” Cancun, Bali and Mauritius are hot enough already — would you really choose to spend your hard-earned vacation sweating in a room without an air conditioner (they’ll likely be banned)? The rise in temperature will also mean that water-scarce areas where many of the world’s best beaches are — parts of California, Chile, Peru, South Africa, Australia — will receive even less rain, rendering some spots unable to host tourists.
Luckily beaches don’t have to be at the coast, as ecologist Peter Kelly points out. In his native Canada, folks have access to many huge lakes, unaffected by rising sea levels, where they can do their beaching. The temperature increase, explains Kelly, could extend the season “beyond July to August to maybe May to October.” Lake Simcoe and Lake Winnipeg all have summer beach seasons now, “but maybe they could become even more popular?” Who knows, even the massive Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake in the nation’s north might host beaches of the future. And it’s not just Canada. The U.S., Scandinavia, Russia, Patagonia and New Zealand also have their fair share of freshwater spots.
Or maybe we’ll all be so sick and tired of the incessant heat that plagues our daily lives that we’ll head for the hills instead. Across the tropics — from Colombia to Kashmir — the well-heeled have always chosen to spend their summers at altitude. Will ski resorts like Aspen, Chamonix and Whistler become popular summer retreats?
Hopefully we can stop the proverbial oil tanker before it comes to this. Call me old-fashioned, but I quite like the world the way it is.