The Economic Impact of Coastal Erosion

Coastal areas are home to major cities around the globe, as well as roughly 40% of the world's population. Rising sea levels and coastal flooding around the world due to climate change threaten these areas. While all coastal areas are subject to storms and natural events causing erosion, these factors tend to become greater as sea levels rise. Human activity such as unsustainable development can also contribute to this erosion process. Still, the impact is vastly different depending on geography.

Coastal erosion has not only an environmental and social impact but also a significant economic one. From lost land and destroyed assets to reduced revenue potential as tourism and other industries are threatened, coastal erosion is a growing concern for nations all around the world.

Key Takeaways

  • Coastal erosion is the process by which rising sea levels, storms, and other phenomena wear down or carry away the rocks, land, and sand making up a coastline.
  • This process causes the loss of tens of thousands of acres of land in the U.S. each year, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
  • Coastal erosion also has an impact on tourism, shipping, fishing, agriculture, and other industries dependent upon coastlines.
  • Implementing anti-erosion measures such as beach nourishment, levees, and seawalls can help to mitigate these economic damages.

Types of Economic Effects of Coastal Erosion

Coastal erosion can have a sizable negative effect on local, regional, and national economies. In the U.S. alone, this phenomenon contributes to roughly $500 million in coastal property loss, according to the U.S. government. Estimates suggest that the U.S. has lost wetlands larger than the state of Rhode Island due to erosion occurring between 1998 and 2009 alone. Below, we explore some of the specific economic impacts of this issue.

Lost land

One of the most significant impacts of coastal erosion is lost land. Beach, wetlands, and other shorelines erode at rates sometimes reaching 50 feet per year in parts of the U.S. Altogether, this leads to tens of thousands of acres of land lost to erosion each year in this country alone.

Because measuring the exact amount of land lost is difficult and coastal erosion rates vary dramatically depending on location and a variety of other factors, it can be difficult to pinpoint exact losses in this area. Still, as land is lost or otherwise made inaccessible due to the risk of further erosion, the economic impact can be severe.

Lost or damaged property

Along with the damage to shorelines and coastal areas more generally, erosion can also cause direct loss of or damage to property such as buildings and infrastructure. Beachfront properties such as homes or businesses are immediately threatened by this process. The impact of coastal erosion extends beyond property located on the coast, however. As wetlands are lost or changed due to erosion, upland regions also become more vulnerable to waves and storm surges. In this way, areas not on the coast can be negatively impacted by coastal erosion as well.

Impacts on shipping and trade

Coastal erosion and related processes can also disrupt shipping ports by making it more difficult for ships to reach ports and harbors, slowing down or otherwise altering the flow of goods. This has the potential to sharply impact trade in areas most heavily affected by erosion.

Revenue impacts from related industries

Besides shipping, many other industries rely on coastal land and property. One of the most visible of these is tourism. Evidence has shown that tourists are less likely to return to areas suffering from continued erosion of beaches. Fishing, agriculture, and many other industries are also liable to be negatively impacted by erosion.

Protecting Against the Economic Impact of Erosion

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to mitigate or otherwise protect against the negative economic impacts of coastal erosion. Risk reduction measures like beach nourishment (the addition of sand on a beach to be a buffer against erosion) and shoreline "hardening" with seawalls, levees, and similar structures can help to reduce the effects of erosion. Coastal cities and communities can also build infrastructure and buildings strategically located and designed to avoid these impacts.

How Does Coastal Erosion Impact an Economy That Depends on Tourists?

Many coastal areas support strong tourist economies. As this land degrades or becomes damaged due to erosion, tourists may be less inclined to visit, spending less money in the process.

What Economic Problems Does Coastal Erosion Cause?

Coastal erosion may lead to a variety of negative economic impacts. These can range from lost or damaged property or land to negative effects on tourism, shipping, trade, fishing, and other industries. The threat of erosion also prevents developers from creating new buildings or infrastructure in some coastal areas.

How Can You Mitigate the Economic Impacts of Coastal Erosion?

Among the best ways to protect coastal economies is to enact measures to protect the coastline itself. Reduction measures like beach nourishment, seawalls, levees, and other physical impediments to erosion are one way to do this. Building sustainably and thoughtfully in coastal areas can also further reduce the likelihood of erosion.

The Bottom Line

Coastal erosion, the combination of rising sea levels, storms, and human activity that leads to the wearing down of land, beaches, and rocks along the coast, has estimated economic costs of $500 million per year in property loss and damage in the U.S. alone. Beyond property damage, coastal erosion can bring about a variety of other economic challenges. As climate change accelerates, this phenomenon—and the economic devastation it produces—may also increase.

Article Sources
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  1. World Bank Group. "Disappearing coasts in the Maghreb: Coastal erosion and its costs," Page 2.

  2. U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit. "Coastal Erosion."

  3. New York City Emergency Management Department. “NYC’s Risk Landscape: a Guide to Hazard Mitigation.” Page 59.

  4. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Economic Implications of Shoreline Change."

  5. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. “Climate Change Impacts on Seaports: a Growing Threat to Sustainable Trade and Development.”

  6. Green Climate Fund. “Concept Note: Enhancing the Resilience of Guinea’s Coastal Rural Communities to Coastal Erosion Due to Climate Change.” Page 5.

  7. World Bank Group. "Disappearing coasts in the Maghreb: Coastal erosion and its costs," Pages 2 and 4.

  8. John H. Tibbetts. “Water Cities: Can We Climate-Proof the Coast?” Coastal Heritage Magazine, vol. 28, no 4, Fall 2014, Page 11.

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