It’s common knowledge that the loss of vegetation can lead to soil erosion; we face the situation all the time in areas disturbed by construction, wildfire, or drought. Something we probably think about less often is the fact that the same thing—sort of—can happen underwater.
That’s the case near the tiny village of Shoyna on the coast of the White Sea in northwestern Russia. This New York Times article tells the story, with dramatic photographs. Founded in the 1930s, Shoyna was once a thriving fishing village, home to more than a thousand people and a fleet of 70 fishing boats. Local fishermen routinely exceeded their government-set fishing goals—until they suddenly didn’t. The catch dropped off. And then even stranger things began to happen.
Although no comprehensive environmental studies have been done here, locals believe that the enthusiastic harvesting wiped out the local fish populations and also—by means of trawling the ocean floor—killed off much of the seaweed and destroyed the benthic habitat. The tide began washing more and more sand ashore.
“This disruption of the seabed, perhaps combined with a natural change in the bed of the river that flows through Shoyna and into the White Sea, is the best suspect to blame for the sand invasion, said Sergey Uvarov, the marine biodiversity project coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund in Russia,” according to the article.
The sand hasn’t stopped coming. Today the village has fewer than 300 people, and some of the houses are completely buried in sand, which has encroached from the shoreline a little more each year. Those who choose to stay need to shovel sand away from their homes each day; at times, they hire bulldozers to remove the worst of it. One woman interviewed in the Times article lives entirely on the second floor of her house because the ground floor is buried. There is no running water—villagers haul it from wells—and no sewer system. Supplies are scarce; people hunt for wild geese and harvest arctic cloudberry, a delicacy that grows naturally in the tundra and brings a high price in the cities. They sometimes trade with herdsmen for reindeer meat.
It’s possible that the habitat is recovering on its own, though. As the article notes, in the last few years grass has begun growing in some parts of the city, and “fishermen, too, tell tales of seaweed tangling in their nets where there was none before.”