Vicente Vargas, 54 years-old, has witnessed the constantly changing sea in the area currently occupied by Ballena Marine National Park. This park is located four hours away from San José, Costa Rica’s capital city.
“Yes, the beach has changed. The shoreline has moved up, more or less,150 meters closer. I know this because when I was nine, I used to go to a shop that was right there (pointing past the national park’s entrance). The owner had to move out because of the sea”, commented the man while carving a hole on a coconut — with a machete — for a tourist thirsty for coconut water.
Nobody disagrees with Vargas, not even José David Palacios, marine biologist and Keto Foundation researcher, a non-governmental organization that has been working in the area since 2009. They only disagree on the number of meters.
“In the ’80s, the National Geographic Institute placed boundary stones to outline the coastal area. Those boundary stones were placed 50 meters into dry land from the high tide line. Boundary stone 55 was planted in 1989 but currently goes underwater during high tide. Using this boundary stone as a reference, we then say that the sea has moved up about one meter per year”, stated Palacios.
This phenomenon is known as coastal erosion and is a consequence of climate change. The same issue is seen in the six beaches that make up Ballena Marine National Park. It has already become evident in all of Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast and even in the Caribbean, where Cahuita National Park lost 20 meters of beach territory within the last 15 years.
The accumulation of greenhouse emissions in the atmosphere has caused an increase in global temperatures, causing deterioration to the polar caps, as well as the expansion of saltwater molecules which end up occupying more space. As a result, the sea level rises and the wave range breaks closer to coastal areas.
The temperature rise in superficial waters also interacts with the atmosphere, which accelerates the wind and favours stronger swells that break stronger when reaching the coast, hence causing sediment loss in the beach. In addition, climate change is causing an increase in the frequency of extraordinary tides (higher than normal).
In other words, the sea is moving further in, and by doing so is gnawing the beach edges, shortening and modifying them. It also impacts mangroves and closeby coastal forests.
“Losing meters of beach land means losing a very important tourist attraction for the Ballena Bay community. People visit the protected wildlife area to observe cetaceans and to visit the tombolo of Uvita, which happens to be shaped just like the tail of a whale. Because there is no dock, tourists then board boats at the beach, so this worries the tour operators. Truth is we are all concerned, but willing to do something”, pointed out Catalina Molina, president of Keto Foundation.
The town of whales
In 1992, Ballena Marine National Park was created, amidst opposition from nearby locals who felt that the new protection status would limit their fishing and agricultural activities.
This changed in 1998. While fishing one day, Julio Badilla observed humpback whales. When he arrived at the beach, he saw some tourists, shared his finding and offered to take them in his boat. From that moment on, Badilla quit as a fisherman and became a tour operator.
“There is currently only one fisherman in town who is still hustling in that field”, commented Vargas and added: “Most of the people in town are dedicated to tourism. Many fishermen became tour operators when they realized that whale watching was more profitable, so it, directly and indirectly, benefited many people. Tourism shaped the community”.
The Ballena Bay district is currently inhabited by 3,306 people in a 160 square kilometre area. 90% of the local economy is dedicated to tourism, particularly related to dolphin and whale watching.
In fact, Ballena Marine National Park is one of the three most visited wildlife protected areas in Costa Rica. Locals changed their perception once they noticed the benefits and moreover, are now the greatest preservation advocates.
“I have been working in tourism-related activities for the last 15 years, so I can assure how important whales are for this community, and in this regard, the national park has been our ally. The park’s creation became a motor for the community”, stated Rafael Sánchez, Bahía Aventuras operations coordinator.
Is climate change a topic in the community? “At least we — tour operators — do talk about it. We see the changes every day. The trail we use to lead the boats gets flooded during high tide. We notice more palm trees with exposed roots. So yes, climate change is discussed more and more”, said Sánchez.
Signals at the beach
At Ballena and Uvita beaches, both part of the wildlife protected area, the receding coastline is notorious.
Cristina Sánchez, a marine biologist at Keto Foundation, approaches a trail entrance that is no longer used. The trail is named Centennial (Centenario) and is located precisely past the gully and tombolo of Uvita. Palm trees in that section have exposed roots due to crashing waves and the resulting erosion. Some palm trees are already dry and others are tilted enough to fall over. According to Sánchez, this indicates the beach has already lost its balance profile.
“We began reforesting to help recover the natural forest that existed in the park, but the coastal erosion progress is so fast, that the species we were planting were not successful at countering such progress”
The Ballena Marine National Park was the second protected area created as such. Its vegetation area is small and lacks an appropriate buffer area, meaning it does not have any room to expand and there is infrastructure right outside its limits.
Despite the limited extent of vegetation, the park is the town guardian. “The natural palm and almond tree barrier, along with the mangroves, contributes to preventing a dangerous situation for the community when severe weather conditions arise. The park receives the initial strike, and therefore protects us”, commented Rodolfo Acuña, administrator of Ballena Marine National Park and public officer of the Preservation Areas National System (Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación).
For Luis Monge, also a public officer of Keto Foundation, strengthening the vegetation at the coastal strip is urgent, in order to restrain the loss of beach land. In return, these plants would sequester carbon. Trees and bushes would also aid in regulating the temperature, and decreasing the thermal sensation, thanks to their shadow.
“Reforestation also prevents soil impoverishment, which already is suffering a dramatic change.
It is not just a matter of the sea impact, but also the heavy rains and storms. If there is no vegetation, all that water drains down to the beach as a run-off, which inevitably involves a loss of soil quality. This is something that concerns not only people residing at the coast, but it should also matter to people who live in the headlands, in the mountain”, added Oscar Brenes, director of Tortuga Beach Reserve, research and preservation centre, adjoined to the national park.
Keto Foundation has designed seven strategies to cope with climate change at Ballena Marine National Park and surrounding areas, utilizing grants from the Adaptation Fund. Community neighbours and local entrepreneurs, organizations and park rangers actively participate in implementing them.
One of the adaptation strategies focuses on reforesting the coastal strip. According to Monge, the goal is to plant 2,000 trees within two years, inside the park as well as in Tortuga beach.
A prior study was conducted to identify the type of forest that existed on site. The research data was used to then identify native species. As a result, he designed strategy revolves around planting coconut palm trees along the coastline, as well as mangrove “seeds” and native tree seedlings inside the forest located behind the beaches.
Some of these native trees will be planted in the urban area to help regulate thermal stress. Trees will also be planted on riverbeds to “secure” the soil and therefore avoid run-offs.
“Just like any other climate change adaptation action, reforesting the beach is unprecedented, so there is very little experience. Then again, this has been a complete learning process. For example, we began reforesting to help recover the natural forest that existed in the park, but the coastal erosion progress is so fast, that the species we were planting were not successful at countering such progress”, stated Monge.
The existing vegetation composition corresponded to environmental conditions at the time. We had mangrove close to the sea because it resists salinity, further inside we had plants that resist salinity and freshwater, and beyond that, trees that were only for freshwater and so on. What happens now? The shoreline has moved up, and if we continue by the same logic of the original forest, I would have to plant mangrove close to the shoreline. But the soil there is not adequate to sustain salinity, and therefore it will not hold the mangrove”, explained Brenes.
Cahuita National Park also suffers from coastal erosion. Monge and Brenes contacted biologist Julio Barquero, who collaborates in similar actions in Costa Rica’s Caribbean. “He recommended that we plant coconut palm trees because aside from being capable of rooting right there, they have a very wide root system, which allows us to protect a little more”, stated Monge.
“The coconut palm tree grows in different substrates, it is less demanding and requires little maintenance. It allows us to consolidate a barrier in front of the sea and buy us time, while we study the type of soil to determine which plants to seed and find out what works”, pointed out Brenes.
There are currently two nurseries: one in Ballena Bay community and another one in Tortuga beach. The reforestation sessions are carried out by volunteers from neighbouring communities and people belonging to universities and industries, who participate as part of their corporate social responsibility program.
One of the priority locations is at the Centennial trail. In fact, the idea is to rehabilitate it to inform and educate visitors regarding what is happening with climate change. “With this, another attraction to the park is being offered and local guides can benefit from it. This is how the touristic product gets diversified and the stress upon other sections of the national park is decreased, therefore converting it into an adaptation strategy”, indicated Molina.
Currently, volunteers are working on refurbishing the national park. They will also place explanatory signs about the situation experienced with climate change as well as educational signs about other landscape attractions within the park, that people are not aware of; such as a coastal lagoon and a mangrove patch.
Another proposed adaptation strategy related to coastal erosion is beach monitoring. Starting from a data collection protocol, park rangers and public officers from Tortuga Beach Reserve will be able to measure parameters on high tide shorelines, sand composition and vegetation, amongst others.
“It is a very simple methodology because it is designed to allow any person to collect data and participate in the process. The idea is to observe how the beach changes with time”, expressed Brenes and added: “The monitoring will provide data used for decision making”.
For Molina, this monitoring could even serve as an early warning system. “Knowing the beach profile and coastal erosion rhythm will provide the community with the necessary reference data for decision making on infrastructure, as well as guide reforestation actions”, he stated.
Climate change is irreversible. “But we can prepare and adapt to cope with it”, declared Sánchez.
Michelle Soto is a Costa Rican journalist with more than 15 years of experience, her professional interest is focused on reporting on science and environmental issues. She has worked in media outlets in her country and currently collaborates for LatinClima (a Latin American portal specializing in climate change) and Mongabay Latam.