Why Gaddafi loves beaches

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Eastbourne and Florida's Gulf Coast may not seem to have an awful lot in common, but I've been to both in the past few weeks and they're grappling with exactly the same problem. In the process, they are bringing a gleam to the eye of Libya's Col Gaddafi.

Visiting Eastbourne just before Christmas, I was riveted by what looked like a whale lunging about offshore. It turned out to be the end of a flexible pipe being used to rescue the resort's beach.

Shingle, dredged off the Isle of Wight, is being piped ashore to build up the eroded strand, in what is euphemistically called "beach nourishment". And I found the same thing going on when I went to spend the holiday at a relative's house in Florida.

The beaches are disappearing there, too. In some of the more built- up areas they have vanished altogether at high tide, when the waves lap against the seafront. Virtually all of the States' strands have either been, or are about to be, "renourished".

I was on the delightful, and less heavily developed, Captiva Island, which was nearly cut in two by the erosion 10 years ago. After that, its full five-mile stretch of beach was replaced at a cost of $9m. A year ago the sands had disappeared again and the whole job had to be done once more.

MY FRIEND Eric Bird, a professor at Melbourne University, has one of the world's best jobs. As perhaps the leading international authority on beaches, he spends his working life on them. And he was one of the first to draw attention to how they are vanishing.

In all, about three-quarters of the world's beaches are being washed away. Some of this is natural, such as from normal shifting of sands or at geologically sinking coastlines. But Professor Bird has found that most of it is the result of human activities, such as the building of piers and sea walls, which disrupt the delicate balance of coasts.

It is going to get much worse as global warming increases. For even small rises in sea level eat far back into beaches, and a warmer world will also produce far more storms, which cause massive erosion.

It's getting to be a very costly business. The United States spends $200m a year on beach nourishment; less wealthy countries face the choice between using scarce funds and losing their tourist industries. The price of sand has reached an all-time high, about pounds 6 a cubic yard. Which brings me to Col Gaddafi. He has realised the possibilities of the crisis, and claims that Libya's sand will soon be worth as much as its oil.

THOSE who were shivering at home this Christmas will doubtless be delighted to hear that it was jolly wet and windy in Florida - yet another manifestation of El Nino. Parts of the state got five times as much rain as normal last month and Captiva was hit by a couple of fierce storms.

The second of these brought ashore hundreds of dead fish, killed by "red tides" of plankton nourished by pollution from fertilisers brought down the rivers from far inland. It was another sign of how the rapid development of the state is affecting even some of its least spoiled areas; 90 per cent of its wading birds have disappeared this century, as its wetlands have been drained.

A thousand people move permanently to Florida every day, I was told. Many, conservationists complain, come to "get closer to nature" and then support further development because it will keep alligators and snakes out of their gardens. This adds, I suppose, a new twist to the cry: "Not in my back yard!"

BUT there's good news too. Ospreys are booming: the number on Captiva's neighbouring island, Sanibel, has doubled in recent years. Mark "Bird" Westall, an international authority on them, says it is partly thanks to phasing out DDT and partly because they adapt easily to nesting on "man-made structures". This rings a bell. When I was last on the island, a decade ago, a pair of ospreys built their nest on the mast of a new, particularly ostentatious yacht. As, by law, the nesting birds must not be disturbed, the proud owner, to his neighbours' unfeigned delight, had to leave his new toy high and dry for the entire season.

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