Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear
Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Waves Washing Away History
For centuries, the waves and winds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans have shaped the coastlines of North, Central, and South America. Slowly but steadily eroding shores, wearing down cliffs, and swallowing sandy beaches. This endless cycle is as old as the sea itself.
Yet now, the oceans seem to be claiming land faster than ever before. Remote islands and atolls that once dotted the Caribbean Sea and lined the Central American coast are vanishing at an alarming rate. Places that were once home to vibrant indigenous communities, epicenters of maritime trade, and rest stops for historic voyages of discovery are disappearing before our eyes.
Take for example the Guna Yala archipelago, a chain of over 365 islands and cays off the Caribbean coast of Panama. This is the ancestral homeland of the Guna people, who have inhabited these islands for centuries. Their unique culture developed in harmony with the sea and coral reefs that surround their island abodes.
But over the past decades, violent storms and rising tides have overwhelmed the Guna. Entire communities have been forced to flee as their islands are consumed by the waves. As Saila Dummaga, a Guna fisherman lamented, "the ocean is gobbling up our homes." Over a third of Guna Yala's islands are now uninhabitable. Centuries of history and tradition lost to the sea.
A similar tale is playing out in the Bahamas, where locals have helplessly watched treasured beaches and fishing holes swallowed up by encroaching tides. In the coastal village of Gold Rock, residents now have to commute by boat just to reach what's left of their town. As one lifelong resident explained, "the sea has taken what belongs to us...our way of life is being washed away."
And it's not just remote islands at stake, but also historic coastal settlements throughout the region. In Campeche, Mexico, the fortified colonial city of Campeche is losing its battle with coastal erosion. This UNESCO World Heritage site, founded by the Spanish in 1540, is crumbling into the sea. And in Honduras, the legendary island of Utila, once a hideaway for the likes of Blackbeard, now faces the demise of its paradisaical beaches.
What else is in this post?
- Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Waves Washing Away History
- Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Rising Seas Swallowing Up Cultures
- Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Storms Stealing Precious Land
- Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Erosion Eliminating Communities
- Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Disappearing Destinations in the Caribbean
- Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Losing Legacies Along the Coasts
- Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Preserving What Remains of Paradise
- Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Finding Ways to Save Atolls and Cays
Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Rising Seas Swallowing Up Cultures
As shorelines recede and islands sink below the waves, more than land is being lost. Entire cultures rooted in island life face extinction as well. The intimate relationship between coastal peoples and the sea is as old as human civilization itself. But this age-old bond is now threatened as rising tides engulf island communities.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the Pacific, where low-lying atolls have sustained Polynesian societies for thousands of years. Yet as once-predictable seasons give way to more violent storms and higher seas, traditional ways of life are being uprooted. For the inhabitants of Tuvalu, a tiny nation comprising nine coral atolls, the rising waters feel like harbingers of the Biblical flood their ancestors outran.
As their precious strips of land grow smaller year after year, Tuvaluans face an impossible choice. Abandon the cherished shores that are central to their culture and identity? Or stubbornly hold on as the waters rise higher?
There may still be time to save Tuvalu from being completely swallowed by the sea. But for the people of Takuu Atoll, about 250 miles northeast of Papua New Guinea, the end has already come. In the 1950s, over 500 Polynesians called Takuu home. But decades of coastal erosion proved merciless. By the early 2000s, Takuu's population had dwindled to just 100 holdouts. Finally, in 2017, the last remaining families were evacuated as what was left of their atoll became uninhabitable.
Piece by piece, the Pacific is being dismantled by climate change. Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and other island outposts all face fates similar to Takuu's. Where vibrant cultures once blossomed, eventually only lonely waves will wash over abandoned islets.
Even on more stable islands, indigenous communities watch their histories sink beneath the sea. In the bayous of Louisiana, where Native American tribes like the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw have fished for generations, lands are disappearing faster than anywhere else in the world. As one tribe member mourned, "We're going to be extinct. We have no more land."
The Arctic peoples of North America tell the same story. For the Inuit of Alaska, as familiar hunting grounds melt into the sea, centuries-old food traditions fade as well. As coastal erosion robs Caribbean villages of land, along with it goes local art forms, music, and crafts honed over generations but irrelevant once the seas displace them.
Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Storms Stealing Precious Land
Battered by increasingly vicious hurricanes and nor'easters, scenic strips of beach and entire barrier islands are being robbed by storms along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast. For communities that depend on tourism revenue from their idyllic shores, losing these sandy stretches to violent weather events can be economically devastating.
"Every year, it seems like we lose more of the beach," sighs Tom Graham, who runs a surf shop on North Carolina's fragile Outer Banks. "After each hurricane, we're left with less space for tourists to spread out their towels and less room for dunes to buffer the next storm."
Like Tom's shop, many Outer Banks businesses fear they're living on borrowed time as the ocean claims more ground after every hurricane season. Further south, Alabama's Dauphin Island has been mercilessly shredded by storms over the past decade, leaving homes and amenities exposed to the sea.
Barrier islands like the Outer Banks and Dauphin act as sandbag walls, protecting coastal towns on the mainland from the full fury of storms. But as these islands fragment, towns inland become more vulnerable. Hurricane Katrina made this painfully clear when levees failed in New Orleans after buffering wetlands were washed away.
Yet coastal communities aren't the only areas suffering from hurricanes' appetite for land. Puerto Rico's El Yunque rainforest, battered by 170 mph winds during Hurricane Maria, lost an estimated 30% of its tree cover overnight. And in the Everglades, storms and flooding have swallowed over 1,000 square miles of fragile wetlands in the past century.
For caretakers like Juan Martinez, a guide at El Yunque National Park, watching treasured ecosystems deteriorate after each hurricane is heartbreaking. "The storms are eating away at the rainforest," laments Martinez. "Many trails I grew up guiding are just gone, washed away."
Howling winds aren't the only weapon in storms' land-stealing arsenal. Hurricanes now unleash as much as 40% more rainfall than they did in the mid-20th century. All of that extra water surging inland is a rising threat. North Carolina officials warn that dilapidated dams and swollen rivers now put over 2,400 square miles at high risk of calamitous flooding after hurricanes drench the state.
Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Erosion Eliminating Communities
As sea levels creep higher and storms grow more severe, even continents begin to erode. Coastal communities that have clung to the same shores for generations now face an ultimatum - flee or be eliminated by the encroaching tide.
The costs of relocation tear at the roots these towns have nurtured. New Yorkers fled venerable beach towns like Oakwood and Ocean Breeze after Hurricane Sandy left them gutted. Today, only vacant lots overgrown with dunes remain where homes once housed memories.
"I miss the life we built there," sighs Betty Keller, a lifelong Ocean Breeze local now relocated inland. "But the sea was swallowing every inch of the place. We had no choice but to leave our own footprints behind before we lost everything."
The slow exodus from America's coasts often fractures communities as much as any hurricane. On Tangier Island, a speck of land in Virginia's Chesapeake Bay, residents reject calls to retreat from rising waters.
"Bugging out is not in our DNA," declares James Eskridge, Tangier's mayor. But the sea may decide for them. Two thirds of the island's landmass has washed away since 1850. The lone school's 17 students could be among the last of a dying community.
Alaska's Kivalina also refuses to surrender before the advancing sea. But after Hurricane Sandy exposed Kivalina's vulnerability, the government declared the island indefensible. With nowhere to relocate, the Iñupiat people of Kivalina are likely the continent's first climate refugees.
This same permafrost now swells Siberia's rivers as it melts rapidly, accelerating coastal erosion that consumes 20 feet of land annually in some areas. Entire towns topple into the sea as the shoreline retreats.
Facing the inevitable, some communities have made the painful decision to relocate before they are eliminated by coastal erosion. In Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, rising seas have erased 98 percent of the island's acreage since 1955. Its besieged Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw residents agreed to move inland together, salvaging what community they could.
Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Disappearing Destinations in the Caribbean
The Caribbean conjures up images of tranquil turquoise waters and swaying palm trees, but this paradise is disappearing. Rising seas are swallowing up beaches, and violent storms are tearing away at the region’s precious islands. For travelers who dream of exploring unspoiled Caribbean hideaways, the window is closing fast on destinations defined by their untamed natural beauty.
Off the Nicaraguan coast, the Corn Islands were once a haven for those seeking an escape from mass tourism. On Little Corn, there were no roads, no banks, no franchises – only pristine beaches wrapping around an idyllic Caribbean island.
But after back-to-back hurricanes battered Little Corn in 2020, locals were left picking up the pieces from a paradise lost. Howling winds stripped the island of its legendary palm trees, leaving its beaches bare and vulnerable. Longtime resident Ariel Rodriguez lamented how the storms left Little Corn unrecognizable: “It was always so green here before. Now I barely recognize my own island.”
On the island of Dominica, Morne Trois Pitons National Park was a rugged wonderland brimming with wildlife and 1,000-foot volcanic peaks. Roadless and largely untouched, it was a sanctuary for rare Sisserou parrots and leatherback turtles. Then in 2017, category 5 Hurricane Maria decimated the park’s lush rainforests under torrential rains and 180 mile per hour winds. “It was total devastation,” recalled park warden Peter James. “Centuries-old trees we once protected were just gone.”
On the island of Barbuda, northern beaches like Palmetto Point and Cocoa Point were legendary for their pink-hued sands and tranquil shallows. That was until Hurricane Irma sent surging waves cutting 50 feet inland, devouring as much as 90% of Barbuda’s beaches. Now deserted stretches of seabed are all that’s left behind, leaving the surviving eastern coast dangerously exposed.
Barbuda’s smaller sister island, Antigua, has been luckier so far. But local sustainability advocate Anika Anthony warns that its treasured beaches are still at risk. “We rely on tourists coming here for our beautiful beaches,” she said. “But even one meter of sea level rise could wipe out nearly all of them.”
With so many idyllic Caribbean hideaways under threat, travelers eager to experience these undiscovered places are faced with a now-or-never dilemma. As climate change escalates, the window to see them untouched is shrinking. But conversely, visiting now means contributing to the high carbon emissions that fuel these islands’ demise. What’s the responsible path forward? There are no easy answers.
Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Losing Legacies Along the Coasts
As rising seas reshape coastlines, more than sand is drifting away. Also being washed over are legacies etched into the shores over generations. The stories whispering in seashells, the traditions tied to the tides, the history harbored in each grain of sand. When the ocean reclaims the land, lifetimes of meaning sink with it.
St. George Island, Florida knows this painful truth. What was once a vibrant fishing community now feels like a ghost town, its legacies fading as homes slip into the Gulf. “There were days this place boiled over with life,” recalls 80-year old Wilma Hanson, whose family fished these shores for generations. “Now those memories just wash away with every hurricane. There’s not much left of the place I knew.”
On Maryland’s Deal Island, the legacy also fades for lifelong waterman David Whitelock. As erosion shrinks the island his family has inhabited since the 1600s, a tradition of crabbing and oystering on the Chesapeake slips underwater with it. “My grandkids will never know that life,” David laments. The stories of those days will be muted when Deal Island's last remnants finally wash away.
Farther north in Newfoundland, Canada, Tim Baker describes similar loss. His ancestors carved cod fishing villages into the rugged coastline centuries ago. Now, as storms chew away at that rocky shore, Baker watches a proud legacy fade with it. “It’s not just houses collapsing into the sea,” he explains. “It’s whole histories being erased without a trace.”
The same melancholy tune echoes down in the Caribbean, where James Milford has fished the waters off his tiny Dominican village since boyhood. “I remember this shoreline being so mighty when I was young,” Milford recalls as he surveys beaches diminished by ferocious swells. “Now it just gets smaller every year. Makes me sad my village won’t be anything but a memory for my grandkids.”
From the Carolina shores to the California coast, similar sagas of surrender play out. On Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the Quinault tribe loses more of the sacred shores where their stories began with each storm. In Jamaica, descendants of sugar plantation workers watch graveyards where their ancestors were laid to rest swamped by encroaching tides.
Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Preserving What Remains of Paradise
Faced with the harsh reality of disappearing islands and sinking shores, defenders of vulnerable coasts are fighting back against the rising tide. From relocating threatened communities to innovative erosion barriers, bold efforts to rescue what remains of paradise are gaining momentum across the Americas.
On Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles, residents could have stubbornly rejected reality as their island withered away – clinging to a place the sea had slated for elimination. Instead, they took control of their own fate. In 2016, islanders agreed to uproot together as a community, salvaging their bonds of kinship as they resettled on more solid ground with federal assistance. “By sticking together, we preserved what matters most about this island: its people,” says tribal chief Chris Brunet.
Farther south in Panama’s Guna Yala archipelago, rustic seawalls woven from palm fronds are shielding beaches from storm swells that once washed away 40 feet of shoreline each year. Though not able to stop rising seas, these humble barriers are buying precious time for the Guna people by buffering erosion. “We may lose this fight eventually,” admits local organizer Abelardo Nuñez. “But we’re determined to protect our islands as long as we can.”
Mangroves are another ally for vulnerable coasts from Florida to Ecuador. Serving as living breakwaters, their dense root systems stabilize shores while reducing flooding. Recognizing this, volunteers across the Caribbean are replanting uprooted mangroves to bolster natural defenses. “Rebuilding these mangrove barriers protects the land and saves lives,” explains volunteer Mariana García.
For treasured beaches, renourishment is now a direct defense. On Florida’s Space Coast, over 1.4 million cubic yards of sand reclaimed from inland quarries and offshore shoals gets pumped onto eroded beaches annually. Miami Beach spends $100 million every few years replenishing washed away beaches. Though costly, such projects are tourists magnets that fuel local economies.
Improved resilience is also enabling communities to hunker down. After Hurricane Maria battered their town, residents of Loiza, Puerto Rico quickly united to rebuild more sturdy concrete homes with solar panels and rain catchment systems. “We refused to surrender this land our ancestors founded,” declares Tomas Rivera, a lifelong Loizan. “We’ve just adapted to withstand whatever comes next.”
But adaptation has its limits. Pursuing resilience can only delay the inevitable for so long. That is why, in parallel with such defenses, conservationists are scrambling to save what biodiversity remains by protecting coastal ecosystems.
Paradise Lost: Exploring the Vanishing Islands of the Americas Before They Disappear - Finding Ways to Save Atolls and Cays
Dotting the turquoise waters of the Caribbean and South Pacific, the tiny islands known as cays and atolls are postcard-perfect paradises. Yet these idyllic oases, never rising more than a few meters above sea level, are perilously vulnerable to climate change. Saving them from being swallowed by rising seas is a race against time. But dedicated campaigns to preserve what biodiversity remains on these vanishing havens are gaining momentum.
For the coral atolls of Belize’s Lighthouse Reef, efforts are underway to combat erosion threatening precious mangroves. By restoring uprooted trees and nurturing new growth, conservation groups aim to reestablish the resilient mangrove barriers that safeguard atolls. “Mangroves provide a lifeline for these islands by trapping sediment and reducing storm damage,” explains Paola Perez of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Restoring them buys Lighthouse Reef precious time.”
Out on the Southern Line Islands, one of the most remote chains of atolls on earth, The Nature Conservancy is protecting the extraordinary marine life these rare habitats harbor. Home to over 160 species of coral and swarms of endangered sea turtles, these atolls constitute 1% of the planet’s remaining near-pristine reefs. By making the Southern Lines a marine protected area in 2008 before climate change further degraded them, 18 million acres of vibrant underwater ecosystems were preserved.
Shielding threatened wildlife as land disappears is also the goal for Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands. Here, beloved atolls like Darwin and Wolf could become uninhabitable for unique species like land iguanas and waved albatrosses within decades due to coastal flooding. In response, conservationists are speeding up efforts to eliminate invasive predators from farther inland islands. By proactively creating safe havens, vulnerable endemic wildlife can be relocated to protected habitats if their native atolls become overwhelmed by rising seas.
For the cherished cays along the Mesoamerican Reef, restorative solutions combining recreation and conservation are being pioneered. On Cayo Espanto, a private island resort off Belize, developers reused building materials from an abandoned hotel as the basis for an artificial reef. This new snorkeling site takes pressure off nearby natural reefs while providing coastal protection. “The artificial reef shields the island, and guests love the underwater world it created,” notes Cayo Espanto manager Zachary Noah.
While such artificial reefs are an innovative adaptation, reducing human impacts on cays remains critical for buying time. On Cayo Costa off Florida’s Gulf Coast, strict visitor quotas now prevent the island’s legendary shell-lined beaches from being loved to death. Reducing foot traffic protects sand dunes while closing unauthorized trails helps vulnerable scrub forest regrow to buffer Cayo Costa from storms. By instilling sustainability, this secluded island paradise can persist longer.