Disappearing beaches, flash droughts, Arctic light pollution: 3 stories you may have missed


Editor's Note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Half of world’s sandy beaches at risk from climate change 

Global shorelines are under threat due to rising sea levels and intense storms.

The Story: A recent study revealed that half of Earth’s beaches will erode more than 100 meters (328 feet) due to rising sea levels and extreme weather events caused by climate change, reported Frank Jordans for the Associated Press. Using satellite images, researchers were able to track the shoreline changes that beaches have experienced over the past 30 years and model how they might undergo as climate breakdown accelerates. According to these models, beaches in Australia will be hit harder by the climate crisis than any other shores, with more than 11,400 kilometers (7,080 miles) of shoreline erosion projected.

The Big Picture: Along with their tourism value, beaches play a crucial role in protecting coastal communities from extreme weather events by serving as a natural barrier to storms and rising sea levels. As extreme storms become more frequent due to climate change, however, these beaches may soon disappear — leaving communities vulnerable to severe flooding and other threats. But countries can prevent more than 40 percent of projected beach erosion by drastically reducing carbon emissions and limiting coastal development projects, the study’s authors explained.

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Brief but severe droughts could negatively affect farming communities across the globe. 

The Story: As temperatures rise and rain patterns become more unpredictable across the globe, researchers are concerned that “flash droughts” — rapidly onset droughts with abnormally high temperatures and strong winds — will become more frequent, impacting agricultural production and water security, reported Matt Simon for Wired. Typically, droughts gradually develop over full seasons or years, but these flash droughts often appear rapidly and without warning, leaving farmers and local communities without a water supply. For example, a flash drought that spanned the Midwest and Great Plains of the United States in 2012 lasted for two weeks during the growing season, costing farmers tens of billions of dollars in agricultural losses.

The Big Picture: “I think the game changer recently has been, with a warmer climate and hotter temperatures, it speeds up … how fast water comes into and leaves our systems, and we're more susceptible to days in between rain events,” said Mark Svoboda, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center. As flash droughts become more common, scientists are scrambling to develop new systems to predict when and where they might occur. This information could help farmers and city officials prepare for periods of time without rain by better conserving existing stores of water. 

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Ships with bright lights are starting to pass through Arctic waters as sea ice melts — which could be disastrous for marine life. 

The Story: Researchers recently discovered that artificial light can alter the behavior of fish reaching as deep as 200 meters (656 feet) in the Arctic, reported Sarah Gibbens for National Geographic. By turning a ship’s lights on and off, a team of scientists was able to track how fish and plankton in the Arctic responded to artificial light using a sonic radar system that monitors movement. Although the scientists are still uncertain of the long-term impacts that light will have on Arctic marine life, light pollution has been found to disrupt animal behavior in many different species, such as baby sea turtles when they are trying to find the ocean after hatching

The Big Picture: “Behavior like where to be in the water column, when to mate, when to develop — all of this is regulated by light,” says Geir Johnsen, a biologist who conducted this research. “Light is one of the oldest cues for life, but for the past 100 years humans have used artificial light and we’ve been doing things [to animals] we haven’t been thinking about.” Due to warming Arctic temperatures caused by climate change, trans-Arctic shipping is expected to become accessible by 2050 — and this research could show how fish in the region will be impacted by light pollution from these ships in the future.

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Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Impanema Beach, Brazil (© OSTILL)

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