Kiteboarding and climate change

3 min read

Colorado’s traditional 4-month snowkiting season on Lake Dillon only lasted 2 months this year.  It started late, and it just ended last week in mid-March — the time of year we typically consider peak winter in the High Rockies.  Decent snowfall this year may have temporarily quelled ski resort hand-wringing about shortening seasons; but, snowfall on an exposed frozen lake can’t withstand record-setting winter heat.

A few months ago, I also discovered the kiteboarding mecca of South Padre Island, Texas, to be in decline due to rising sea levels and shifting wind patterns.  In the 5 years since my last visit, the northwestern Gulf of Mexico sea level has risen about 2.5 inches.  On flat gradient tidal flats of the Laguna Madre, that translates to the barrier island’s coastline creeping some 50 feet further inland in many spots. 

Soundside beaches where kiters used to park cars are under water.  Disconnected dry fingers of land can only be reached by sacrificially driving through corrosive water three times the ocean’s salinity.  Historically, many dozens of kiters concentrated on one expansive, socially-vibrant beach.  A solo kiter could easily make friends.  There were plenty of people to launch and land kites.  Now, the scarcity of dry land between dunes and water forces dispersion of kiters into small clusters strung out along several miles of coast.  It’s a quieter, more cliquish experience.  There’s no longer any way to even figure out who’s on the island.  The pressure-cooker of disappointing conditions pits grumpy vacationers with stereotypically “first-world” challenges against one another.  

In addition to the disruptively high water line, wind patterns have shifted meaningfully over the past few years.  Data shows that the peak fall and spring windy seasons are each about one month later than they used to be.  However, not all visitors know this, nor are able to adjust their annual pilgrimage schedule.  More kiters are getting skunked more often.  They return home with a bad impression and spread word quickly through the interconnected kite community.

As a result, kiteboarder visitor volumes on the island are way down.  After all, there are plenty of other cool places to kite, and one of the main selling points of SPI seems to be gone.  Marketers know that a tiny change in product features can cause a huge falloff in demand when there are many competing products to choose from. 

The island’s two kite shops have tracked the trend numerically and feel the economic pinch.  New beach access charges aim to replace lost revenue, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough livelihood to go around anymore.  Fewer kiting instructors can subsist in town.  Economic stress brings out the worst aspects of human nature – including competing kite shops vandalizing one another this fall in a turf war. 

The South Padre Island situation is just a minor case study of the mechanism by which rising seas and changing weather patterns can cause social disruption.  Direct consequences of global warming include more frequent and intense storms, floods, and droughts.  Those phenomena are already causing wildlife habitat loss, species extinction, lower crop yields, and expanded disease transmission.  But then there are the hard-to-anticipate, butterfly-type effects on human interaction and commercial activity.  American kiteboarders wrecking car undercarriages in sub-tropical salt flats and slogging across slush-surfaced high-elevation lakes, channeling their frustration into petty but painful interpersonal conflict, and leaving already-marginal businesses scrambling as leisure spending moves elsewhere… That’s just the relatively innocuous beginning.  Climatic instability threatens global economic, social and political instability.

The US military long ago concluded that anthropogenic climate change constitutes a national security risk.  Despite being an appointee of our Science-Denier-in-Chief, the new Secretary of Defense unequivocally reiterated this precautionary position to the Senate Armed Services Committee and to the public.  Perhaps that warrants hope for political change about climate change.

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