April 27, 2009

French Coast Threatened By Erosion

Climate change is now threatening France's Aquitaine coast, which stretches north from the Spanish border to the Gironde River, causing erosion that is endangering coastal communities.

In 2006 the European LIFE program identified 13 coastal communities as hotspots for erosion.

"There is a lack of sand on the beaches, because of a period of warming -- climate change," says Cyril Mallet, of the French geology and mining research agency BRGM.

Climate change means more erosion for the area, which already suffers due to its location on the Bay of Biscay.  Every year ocean waves carry nearly 17.6 million cubic feet of sand southward from the region.

According to local experts, cliffs are sliding into the sea, beaches are disappearing, dunes are in danger, and the tourism trade is in jeopardy.

Only 10 percent of the Aquitaine coast is populated, but the population is growing.  Over $1.8 billion is spent on tourism in the area between May and September.

"Tourism is our economy," said Albery Larrousset, Mayor of Guethary, a Basque town of 1,300. "And without beaches, we won't have tourists."

Beaches are deteriorating and leaving empty parking lots, businesses, and roads.

Seawalls, a traditional defense against erosion, increase erosion in neighboring areas. 

Nearly all communities in the areas are working to move sand from one place to another.

The population of Soulac-sur-Mer, a popular beach and camping area near the tip of the northern coast, expands from 2,800 to 40,000 in the summer.

Roads and campgrounds in the area are in danger from erosion.

The damage forces a town employee to distribute sand over an 800 yard area every day.

Arcachon Bay, a location farther south, has taken a different approach to beach erosion.

"For over 60 years, all waterfront property owners on Arcachon Bay have been required to belong to and pay dues to an association called SIBA, which manages the bay," said Louis Gaume, head of a local property development firm.

SIBA combines both public and private financing, and in 2002 dumped 1,000,000 cubic meters of sand on the eroded beaches at Pyla.

But the dynamics of the bay, and climate change means there is no end in sight.

The most recent maintenance required 100,000 cubic meters of sand.

Capbreton, another coastal community, built a one-of-a-kind $6.3 million sand bypass system to deal with beach erosion. 

Previously, the community used trucks to disperse sand to the beaches, but found that they caused traffic jams, and tore up the roads.

"We had two major things at stake," explained city engineer Eric Cufay.

"First, offering dry beaches during the tourist season, and supporting the economy that goes with them; and second, protecting construction, including roads."

The new system sucks up sand from a nearby beach and sprays it on four beaches in Capbreton.  The system can move triple the amount of sand that was being moved by the trucks.

In the southern Basque country, Guethary clings to its patch of coastline.  The 12th century whaling community rests atop clay cliffs, where the fear of landslides is great.

"Above all else, this is about the safety of people," explained Mayor Larrousset.

The town spent nearly $100,000 last year to stabilize the area, and with rocky bluffs at their backs, they have nowhere to go.

"We used to have large beaches with parasols and beach chairs," reminisced Larrousset. "But now we barely have room for towels and we're nearly on top of one another."

Retreat is not a popular option, but it may be the only sustainable answer for those living along the Aquitaine coast.