Rising seas threaten renowned French coast


France's Aquitaine coast stretches north from the Spanish border to the Gironde river estuary, encompassing rocky bluffs, giant lagoons, deltas, beaches and Europe's largest dune.

Now climate change has laid siege to this natural oasis, dramatically speeding up the erosion of the 270 kilometre-long (168 miles) Atlantic coastline and threatening local communities.

A study published in 2006 by the European LIFE program identified 13 coastal communities as erosion "hotspots".

"There is a lack of sand on the beaches, because of a period of warming -- climate change," confirmed Cyril Mallet, geological engineer and project manager for the French geology and mining research agency BRGM.

Climate change means rising sea levels, more violent storms and increasing rainfall in a region already suffering from its location on the Bay of Biscay, where ocean waves carry 500,000 cubic metres (17.6 million cubic feet) -- about 200 Olympic swimming pools -- of sand southward every year.

Cliffs are sliding into the sea, beaches are disappearing, dunes that protect forests, towns and roads are in danger, and the tourism trade is in jeopardy, local experts said.

The stakes are high.

Only 10 percent of the coast is populated, but that population is growing, and between May and September, visitors spend more than 1.4 billion euros (1.8 billion dollars) in surfing beaches, spa towns, ocean side campsites and quaint villages.

The pristine beaches are the first casualty of coastal erosion.

"Tourism is our economy," said Albery Larrousset, Mayor of Guethary, a Basque town of 1,300 whose population swells to 5,000 in the summer months. "And without beaches, we won't have tourists."

Parking lots, businesses, roads and homes are planned with the notion that beaches remain in one place.

Traditional defences like seawalls increase erosion in neighbouring areas, denying the towns easy remedies. Solutions are as varied as the communities involved, but nearly all require moving sand from one place to another.

Near the northern tip of the coast, Soulac-sur-Mer is a popular beach and camping area. A year-around population of 2,800 expands to 40,000 in summer.

The town, roads and campgrounds are in danger from erosion, and one campground clings precariously to the beachside location.

Locals do not want to hear about retreat, but the damage forces a town employee to redistribute sand over an 800-metre (yard) section every day.

Farther south, Arcachon Bay has taken a different approach.

"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 his family's property development firm.

SIBA combines both public and private financing, and involves a diverse waterfront community, including oyster farmers, retirees, luxury villa owners and small businesses.

In 2002, SIBA dumped 1,000,000 cubic metres of sand on the disastrously eroded beaches at Pyla.

But the complicated dynamics within the bay, including shifting sandbars, powerful tidal currents, waves and wind -- all heightened by climate change -- mean the work never ends.

Recent maintenance required a barge to spray 100,000 cubic metres of sand, taken from a sandbar 200 meters from the beach, in an operation that lasted two days and cost 200,000 euros.

While the Arcachonais win honours for community involvement, Capbreton takes the prize for ingenuity with its 4.5 million-euro sand bypass system, the only of its kind in Europe.

With a year-around population of 8,500, and a summer population of 65,000, the city found itself hauling 3,000 truck loads of sand each year to maintain its beaches. The trucks created traffic jams, pollution 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" and a sewage treatment plant.

The new hydraulic system, largely underground, sucks up sand from a beach a kilometre to the north, and sends it south, spraying four beaches at a rate of 270 cubic metres per hour, triple the amount that was moved by trucks.

Farther south, the Basque country is caught between an encroaching sea and crumbling cliffs.

It's here that the town of Guethary clings to its patch of coastline. The bluffs are made partially of clay, and with the double onslaught of the sea below and the rain on top, landslides occur.

"Above all else, this is about the safety of people," explained Mayor Larrousset. Guethary spent 70,000 euros last year to stabilise a 300-metre stretch by inserting tubes into the cliffs to drain off the water.

Meanwhile, every spring, this 12th century former whaling village retrieves 500 cubic metres of sand that migrated during the winter. Even this does not provide a long-term solution to the rising sea.

"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." With rocky bluffs at their backs, they have nowhere to go.

Retreat is the less popular option, but in the case of the inhabitants of the Aquitaine coast, it may be their only sustainable option.

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