Home/ Science / Rising Atlantic Ocean engulfs fishing town in Brazil

Sônia Ferreira struggles to remember what this deserted fishing community near Rio de Janeiro looked like when she moved here some 50 years ago—mostly because a good chunk of it is now at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The coastline is receding as much as 18 feet a year at the mouth of the Paraíba do Sul river in Atafona, home to 7,000 people, satellite images show. Between 1984 and 2016, some 550 feet have disappeared. Climate change has increased sea levels, scientists say, and most of the river’s water has been diverted to nearby cities, farms and factories, thwarting its ability to push back the ever-higher waves that sweep away buildings, livelihoods and memories.

“You watch it happen in slow motion," said Ms. Ferreira, 78, surveying the rubble at the water’s edge that had been the home where she raised three children. “You don’t know when exactly your house will fall down but you know it will."

Atafona is an extreme example of the challenge that lies ahead in a country with some 4,600 miles of coastline, one of the world’s longest. Environmental researchers say scores of other beachside communities face similar fates in Brazil, among the top 10 countries that will be most affected by rising sea levels, according to Climate Central, a research organization on climate science.

In tourist hot spots such as João Pessoa on the northeastern coast, hotel owners are already begging the government to build artificial reefs to protect their beaches from higher tides.

In São Paulo state, rising sea levels combined with intense rains led to severe floods in February that killed more than 60 people and left thousands homeless, said Celia Gouveia Souza, a geologist and oceanographer at the government-backed Institute of Environmental Research.

“There was a huge amount of water trying to drain down the rivers into the sea just as the sea was rising to its highest point," she said.

In Atafona, the 2-mile-long stretch of beach south from where the Paraíba do Sul river meets the ocean resembles a war zone. Houses severed in half teeter on the sand. A broken television set perches on the branch of an upturned tree. Entire streets lie empty, cordoned off by the government, their wreckage covered in graffiti citing passages from the Bible that allude to the end of the world.

Global average sea levels are rising because of melting polar ice sheets and the expansion of the water’s volume itself in higher temperatures, according to the United Nations. But climate change is also leading to higher and more frequent storm surges, which is causing much of the damage in Atafona, said Eduardo Bulhões, a marine geographer at Rio’s Federal Fluminense University.

The United Nations Security Council held their first-ever debate on sea level rise in February, warning of its global implications from mass migration to conflicts over competition for freshwater and land. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres cited data from the World Meteorological Organization showing global average sea levels have risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in the last 3,000 years. Since 1993, the rate of sea level rise has doubled, increasing by nearly 10 millimeters since January 2020 to a record high last year, according to the WMO.

Atafona’s problems have been compounded by manufacturing and agricultural development upstream. Decades ago, the Paraíba do Sul would thunder down the valley to meet the Atlantic, slowing the ocean’s advance on Atafona.

But now, some two-thirds of the river’s water is diverted upstream to supply the city of Rio de Janeiro, and also by factories and farms along its 700-mile course. Deforestation to make way for nearby sugar cane farms has damaged its banks, further reducing the river’s flow.

“At the river’s mouth, there has long been this battle between the river and the sea," said Mr. Bulhões. The river—now a slow-moving muddy stretch of water that is gradually getting saltier—has lost.

Some 500 buildings have disappeared into the sea since the 1960s, said André Pinto, a historian and official at the São João da Barra municipality, of which Atafona is a district. Broken kitchen tiles and shards of metal puncture the white sands, making it dangerous to enter the water.

Ms. Ferreira’s eyes welled up as she scanned the ocean’s empty expanse for remnants of her past.

“There used to be five blocks of houses that way…beautiful mansions, a church, places to eat crab and fresh fish where everyone would meet."

In place of tourists, several lone men with bloodshot eyes recently roamed the shores, frantically searching for scrap metal or anything of value—part of what residents say is a growing problem with crack-cocaine addiction. Occasionally, the police evict squatters from the most precarious ruins.

Eliane Silva, 60, has mixed feelings about the ocean. Since fishermen first arrived here in the 1600s, the sea has been the source of Atafona’s wealth, providing a livelihood for the community’s fishermen, including both her sons. But now the sea is about to take everything she has.

The vacation home where she has worked as a live-in housekeeper for the past 30 years is next in line to disappear.

“It’s only a matter of time before I lose my job," she said, adding that she has grown frightened of the water.

The seafront used to be lined with Atafona’s grandest houses, the summer residences of wealthy sugar cane barons.

They were the first to go, said Joca Delbons, one of the few real-estate agents who has stuck it out in Atafona. He said there is still demand farther inland, either from those who were evicted by the sea or by investors hoping to buy cheap and sell for a big profit if there is ever a solution to halt the waters.

University researchers into coastal erosion have proposed everything from a giant stone wall to hold back the sea to an underwater blanket to hold the sand in place. There was also talk of adding to the sand dunes that have helped buffer some of the homes farther down the beach and building 240-meter-long (262-yard-long) jetties out into the ocean.

“In the end nothing was done," said Mr. Pinto, blaming Brazil’s rigid environmental laws and infighting over which government entity would pay. He believes the best solution is to relocate people farther inland.

Marcela Toledo, environment secretary for São João da Barra, said the city hall was working with federal and state officials “to unify efforts," saying that more needed to be done to address problems upriver.

Meanwhile, the municipal government has resorted to putting out more than a thousand sandbags every year to protect the most vulnerable properties—a palliative measure that Mr. Pinto said is about as effective as “trying to dry ice."

Some residents, though, refuse to give up.

Talis Santiago, a handyman whose small house is now several feet from lapping waves, spends his days fending off scavengers and sand. Once located on firm land a long walk from the beach, his home has gradually been overcome with sand as the coastline moves closer. Every week, he removes mounds of it that accumulate on his roof, threatening to crush the house from above, as the ocean encroaches below.

“The sea is crafty, it starts by eating away at the house from underneath, destroying the foundations until it collapses," said Mr. Santiago.

A short walk up the beach, Ms. Ferreira was recently hunkered down in an outbuilding she built behind her now-destroyed house. “Most people around here believe that this is all the will of God," said Ms. Ferreira, who spends time talking to local scientists who come to inspect the damage.

“I’m not one of those people, though," she said. “This was us, human beings, we did this."

Write to Samantha Pearson at samantha.pearson@wsj.com

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