Higgins Beach in Scarborough has been identified among the top 10 U.S. surfing spots under threat from climate change by a national organization dedicated to the protection of world oceans, waves and beaches.
The California-based Surfrider Foundation said rising sea levels associated with warming ocean waters, including those in the rapidly heating Gulf of Maine, are reducing both beach access and wave production around the world, including at the popular Higgins Beach site.
Zach Plopper, the organization’s senior environmental director, couldn’t say exactly why Higgins Beach came in number nine on a list that included such iconic surfing spots as Hawai’i’s North Shore or Florida’s Cocoa Beach.
“Sea level rise is an absolute threat to surfing everywhere,” Plopper said. “We wanted a list of popular regional surf spots from all over the U.S., because surfing, it’s everywhere now. Higgins is important to the regional surfing community so it’s a good stand-in for the Maine coast.”
Scientists predict warming waters along the East Coast will rise by at least a foot by 2050 and two feet by 2100, Plopper said. That will leave many beaches underwater, push the surf into residential areas and dramatically change the quality of waves and the way they break.
Surfers may feel and observe the impact of sea level rise first – canaries in a coal mine, Plopper called them – but it threatens everything from seaside development to infrastructure such as roads, water mains and sanitary sewers.
The Maine Climate Council has determined that sea level rise along the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, could affect 20,000 jobs, cause $17.5 billion in coastal infrastructure damage, and increase flooding events ten-fold by 2050.
Some locals who have surfed Higgins Beach for years agree the spot is under threat, but say ever larger crowds, a lack of nearby parking and time-restricted beach access pose a larger, more immediate threat than climate change to their ability to ride the break.
David Connor of Cape Elizabeth, a local high school teacher, has surfed Higgins Beach for 30 years. Like any beach, the underwater topography shifts from season to season and storm to storm, but no more than any other Maine beach. If anything, Higgins is more stable, he said.
“The wave break has been pretty consistent since I started in the early ’90s,” Connor said. “The river that empties out to the far end of the beach hasn’t washed anything away. None of the rocks are more or less exposed. The tide comes up as far as it always has. No obvious erosion.”
Connor said Scarborough has done a good job maintaining and protecting both the beach and the beachside community located beyond the sea wall and sand dunes. Unfortunately, the town has also restricted surfing to before and after prime beach hours during the summer.
“The biggest threat to surfing at Higgins is the sheer mass of humanity, not its carbon emissions,” Connor said. “It’s always been popular. It has developed a cult following for having a perfect beginner wave, but it’s gotten especially bad since the pandemic.”
People realized surfing, a solo sport, was a near-perfect COVID pastime, Connor said, leading to a huge influx of new surfers descending on Higgins. The parking spots that line the beach and the satellite parking lot are filled with cars sporting out-of-state plates, even off season.
The veteran surfer said Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg would be a better example of an at-risk surfing spot. The once plentiful sand dunes there are disappearing, he said. Several years ago, a storm there threatened to wash a newly built state-funded bathhouse away.
To avoid such damage to any beach, Surfrider and other environmental groups advocate for nature-based projects to improve coastal resilience, such as restoring wetlands that can offset carbon emissions while providing a buffer against increasing storm activity and sea level rise.
This spring, Scarborough received a $46,000 Community Action Grant to fight and adapt to climate change, in particular, to develop resiliency strategies for a section of Route 1 that crosses Scarborough Marsh and serves another one of the town’s large beach communities.
The only other Northeast beach to make the list was the Rockaways in New York, a once desolate Queens surfing spot that is now best known for its winter waves. It also enjoys the distinction of being the only legal spot left to surf at any time of the year in New York City.
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