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El Salvador’s Disappearing Coast

The dead skeletons of mangrove trees jut from the encroaching sand, pushed forward at a rate of about 45 yards a year by the rising Pacific Ocean. Image by Simeon Tegel. El Salvador, 2012.

As we paddle slowly through the still waters of the mangrove forest, herons swoop around us and I glimpse a raccoon scurrying up a tree.

While he steers the canoe, Nahun Diaz tells me how the raccoons, like the people of his village La Tirana, also hunt the “punche,” a local species of crab that spends most of its time hidden in the mud.

Yet the gathering sound of crashing waves indicates that not all is as it should be in this wilderness. According to Nahun, the rising Pacific has now advanced some 1,000 ft. into the mangrove since 2005.

As we emerge onto the windswept beach, the proof of what he says could not be plainer to see. Coming out of the advancing sand is a forest of dead mangrove trees. On the far side of the beach, short stumps emerge and vanish as the waves wash over them.

As it advances, the ocean pushes the band of sand deeper into the mangrove forest and the trees slowly die, first shedding leaves, then whole branches and eventually the remnants of their trunks, no more than three or four feet tall disappear below the Pacific.

Scientists have been predicting sea level rises resulting from climate change – with the polar caps and mountain glaciers around the world gradually melting – for a while now.

For a variety of reasons, including the Coriolis Effect, that rise is not expected to be even across the earth’s different regions. What is occurring here in El Salvador’s little studied coast may well be a precursor of things to come in other vulnerable coastal areas around the globe, from Bangladesh to Florida.

MARN, El Salvador’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources is predicting that in the next century the country will lose between 149 sq. km and 401 sq. km of its coast as a result.

Here in the Bajo Lempa region of western El Salvador, it seems that that process has already started. There now remains another 1,500 ft. of mangrove.

Working out whether and when the Pacific will swallow it all is the job of scientists. But one does not have to be an expert to realize that, should the ocean continue advancing at its current rate, the mangrove here will disappear entirely at some point in the 2020s.

The immediate consequences of that would be that Nahun, a 26-year-old father-of-three, and his neighbors, who have no electricity, running water or sewerage and live largely by subsistence agriculture and fishing, would lose their only, extremely meager source of cash income.

Already one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere and ravaged by the rampant violence of the Maras, some of the world’s most trigger-happy street gangs, the last thing El Salvador is equipped to deal with now is an internal wave of climate refugees.