Beach Towns Without Beaches: Palomino Colombia Previews Our Future

PALOMINO, COLOMBIA — A brief hike east or west from this Caribbean coastal town reveals long expanses of light gray sand, pounded by waves, backed by lofty coconut palms, hoary mangroves and wild forests that stretch into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

But in the town itself, once the site of beach volleyball tournaments, little sand remains.

Most studies blame hotel and resort developers who removed mangroves, leaving picturesque expenses of sand with open views of the sea under the palms. But the palms and the mangroves, it turned out, had a symbiotic relationship. Without the mangroves’ sand-grabbing roots, the sea reclaimed the sand, undermining the palms until they toppled onto the vanishing beach.

Then the sea marched on, consuming bars, restaurants, and bungalows, undermining the foundations of hotels.

All of this within a few short years. Google images from 2018 show the beach intact.

As the sea swallowed their property, some proprietors responded with seawalls, sandbags, and breakwaters assembled from massive tractor tires. But the sea, with the patience of geologic time, has begun to pound those to rubble.

Some of the erosion can be attributed to sea-level rise—NOAA estimates global sea levels have already risen several inches since the mid-1990s—and Colombia can expect sea level to rise along its coast up to two feet more by 2050, according to NOAA and US AID.

Colombia may be previewing the fate of beaches the world over. In Palomino, changes are already visible that are expected in beach communities worldwide.

As the sea rises, fewer mangroves are poised to preserve the beaches. Worldwide, 3769 square miles of mangroves have been removed, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and more than 500 square miles has been degraded.

That amounts to more than half of the world’s mangrove forests, which have also proven to be among the best plants at capturing and sequestering atmospheric carbon.

Many of the world’s denuded shorelines may face a fate like Palomino’s.

“They used to have volleyball tournaments on this beach,” one hotel worker told us. “Now it’s all gone. It’s sad.”

Compare this sad image:

To the same spot in a 2018 photo posted to Google Maps.

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