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Our Playground: Climate Change and Recreation


Surfers and beach-goers are ‘canaries in a coal mine’ when it comes to threats to our ocean, waves and beaches.  We are the first to see impacts from pollution, poorly planned coastal development, and obstructed beach access.  

And as our climate continues to change, Surfers and beach-goers will undoubtedly see more impacts to ocean and coastal recreation.  Scientists predict climate change will cause more frequent and intense storms, hurricanes, sea level rise, ocean acidification, heat waves, and other extreme weather events which will change our recreational experience.  But exactly how will climate change impact our favorite ocean and beach activities? 

For starters, climate change impacts will affect everything from sandcastle building to surfing.  Scientists predict that sea levels could rise up to six-feet by 2100.  An increase this large will swallow beaches—impacting public access, beach recreation, and healthy ecosystems. Beach erosion from increased storms will also chip away at our beaches.  With less sand beach-goers will have a completely different recreational experience in the future. 

Swimming and other ocean recreation will be impacted by increased sewage overflows and urban runoff cascading into the ocean because climate change produces more rain. In addition, sea level rise and coastal inundation can overload and undermine wastewater infrastructure—causing malfunctions that result in more pollution.  During heavy rain events and sewage spills, beaches are closed for 72 hours, completely halting recreation.

Snorkeling, scuba diving, and shellfish harvesting will be impacted by ocean acidification and coral bleaching.  In fact, corals are already being gravely impacted by higher ocean temperatures which causes bleaching. In fact, 90% of heat trapped by GHG is absorbed by the ocean. Bleaching occurs when the algae that lives within coral tissues are expelled due to warmer temperatures—leaving barren, bleached corals behind. 

In addition, changes in ocean chemistry will impact how divers explore corals and hunt for shellfish due to ocean acidification.  Our ocean is a massive sponge that has absorbed over 25% of CO2 emitted by burning fossil fuels. As a result, high concentrations of CO2 are causing the oceans to acidify at rapid rates which is detrimental to marine life like shellfish, coral reefs because more acidic water dissolves sea creatures’ shells and impacts how corals form.   

Last but not least, climate change and rising seas will impact surfing. In areas where the seafloor is sandy and flat (a beach break), the wave may break further inshore (perhaps not breaking at all until the shore break), thus changing the size and shape of the wave. In areas where the seafloor is uneven and rocky (a reef break), higher sea levels will inundate the reef, leaving less area for the wave to break and increasing the possibility that the wave might not break at all.  In fact, research from California indicates surf breaks are extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise; and just three feet of sea-rise will drown 80% of California's surf spots.  

While recreational impacts related to climate change are daunting, the Surfrider Foundation and our outdoor recreational partners are working to help mitigate climate change and work with local communities to plan for future impacts.  Check out Surfrider’s climate website and our activist toolkit.  In addition, our friends at Outdoor Alliance are raising awareness about climate change impacts to skiing, mountaineering, kayaking, and other outdoor activities.

Please take a moment to sign the Outdoor Alliance's petition to tell lawmakers that the outdoor community expects action on climate change!

Now is the time for us all to work together to raise awareness about climate change and help save our favorite playgrounds.