PLAYA COCLES, Costa Rica (Reuters) – A s towering waves smashed onto Costa Rica’s Cocles Beach, sucking away much of its sand, surf instructor Leo Downer was scared that the coastal road, along with his Toyota car, would be washed into the Caribbean by the ferocious February storm.
Low boulders now sit in place to help shelter Cocles, with its reggae bar and cafes serving rice and beans, where tourists cycle past fruit stalls selling lychees and soursop, and signs warn of sloths crossing the beach road.
However, as rising seas threaten parts of the tropical eastern coast, dubbed “Little Jamaica,” many worry that the visitors who generate numerous jobs in the area — known for its palm-fringed beaches and exotic wildlife — could go elsewhere.
“This year was the craziest I’ve ever seen,” said Downer, pointing to the nearby road amid a torrential downpour. “We lost everything — there was no sand, there was nothing, the water was hitting right here, all those trees fell down.”
“I saw the water come under my car, whoosh — it didn’t take it, but I’ve never seen that before. I think everything is changing, it’s a little warning,” he said, his family sheltering from the rain under their beach shack surrounded by surfboards.
Global warming could cause sea levels around the world to rise between 70cm and 1.2m over the next two centuries, ramping up pressure on roughly half of the world’s population who live near the coast, a German-led team of researchers said in a study published in February.
Scientists have said that parts of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast have lost at least 20m of beach over the past 15 years as creeping sea levels and changing wave patterns cause coastal erosion, often exacerbated by coral reef degradation.
They have warned that higher seas and increasingly unpredictable conditions could start to damage infrastructure and take a heavy economic and social toll.
In addition to the creeping effects of climate change, extreme events, such as hurricanes, are likely to worsen the impact on many coastal communities, said Borja Reguero, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Trees are being replanted on parts of Costa Rica’s coast to halt erosion and protect livelihoods, but experts have said that more extreme conditions demand hefty spending on infrastructure, such as wave breaks and sea walls, to delay mass relocations.
“In 100 years, all of the villages in Costa Rica’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts will inevitably be flooded,” University of Costa Rica oceanographer Omar Lizano Rodriguez said. “There’s not the resources or political will to solve the problem. Costa Rica deals with emergencies, but not prevention.”
Tourism is a mainstay on the tropical coast about 200km east of San Jose, where many are descended from the Jamaicans who originally came to work on a jungle railway, and English mixes with Spanish and Patois.
In Cahuita, where a coastal national park draws tourists looking for sloths snoozing in the treetops and howler monkeys leaping through the forest, the sea has already consumed slabs of beach and is starting to menace the sleepy town.
On the wooden veranda of Spencer Seaside Lodging where she works, Araceli Huertas said that storm waves have been much higher than in previous years and sometimes crash over the reinforced sea wall in front, soaking the hotel’s rooms.
“The tourists are frightened it’s a tidal wave or a tsunami or something, as they don’t see this very often,” said Huertas, who has lived in the beach town for 15 years. “Now the sea is calm, but when the sea looks very high, they want to leave.”
Wild conditions are causing trouble for fishermen who cannot go out in rough seas and are landing smaller catches, fisherman and tour guide Jose Ash said as two men dragged a boat out of reach of the high tide.
“People who live from the ocean can’t go anywhere — it’s too dangerous,” said Ash, whose own boat was moored offshore. “What I hear is they’re going to build a dock right here for the fishermen, they’re going to put some big stones and jacks out there by the big breakers, but that’s just like blah, blah, blah for the past 10 years.”
Cahuita National Park regularly has to redraw its coastal paths, but an elevated wooden walkway built after parts of the access road were washed away now allows it to stay open even when the sea washes ashore, helping keep local guides in work.
As rising waters push back the park’s shorelines and reduce its trees, the animals that tempt visitors to the area are also coming under pressure, park guard Mirna Cortes Obando said.
“All the coastline inside the park has been affected — for example, we’ve lost nearly 50m of beach over the last 10 years,” Cortes said on the veranda of the park’s headquarters, which was surrounded by water during recent storms. “We’re losing much of the trees here, the almonds, the sea grapes, the coconuts that the animals use for food.”
Together with the non-profit Talamanca-Caribbean Biological Corridor Association, the park is now planting more trees along the coast to limit erosion, while a team monitors the coral reef that helps protect parts of the shore.
Some of the young trees, such as coconut palms, have been wiped out by storms, but they should eventually create a barrier to protect against rising waters, association marine biologist Julio Barquero Elizondo said.
Educational programs are also crucial to better prepare for climate change, Barquero said in Hone Creek village, where hundreds of saplings grow in the non-profit’s plant nursery.
“We have to have alternatives and not just think about the beach and the sea — the guides should also know about forest tourism and indigenous communities, to have a broader offering so that climate change won’t be so damaging,” he said.
Back in Cahuita National Park, wildlife guide Richard Hills-Wilson pointed to the tangle of sun-bleached trunks that was once a broad stretch of sand he played on as child.
He is bracing for the next storms as he marks 33 years of working in the area next month.
“The beach is going to go,” he said. “If there’s no beach, then nobody comes.”
Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/