Decades ago, Julia Maria de Assis thought that someday she would take over the management of a hotel that her father had begun to build in Atafona, a seaside town in the north of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro.
But the very attraction that attracted tourists to Atafona - the sea - became its enemy. The advancing water put the hotel on hold until the power of the ocean finally destroyed it. Over the past 13 years, almost 500 more buildings have been destroyed.
"There should have been 48 rooms here - a big hotel that never got started," says Assis, 51, standing next to the rubble that once made up her family's dream. "Although the structure of the hotel was solid, every time waves hit the building, they damaged it and eventually it collapsed."
For the past half century, the Atlantic Ocean has been relentlessly swallowing up Atafona, part of the municipality of San João da Barra, 250 kilometers from the capital, Rio de Janeiro, and home to 36,000 people. Due to climate change, there is little hope for a solution. Instead, Atafona slides into the sea.
"Sometimes the water reaches my knees. My biggest fear is that one day she will take my hut," says 35-year-old fisherman Vanesa Gomez Barreto at a stall where she sells her catch. "There was a chapel, a bakery. It was a very large city, of which only a piece remained. The sea swallowed everything."
The Paraíba do Sul River, which originates in the neighboring state of São Paulo, brings sediment and sand to Atafona, where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. In the 1950s, its runoff was largely diverted to provide water for the growing capital of São Paulo, which weakened Atafona's natural barrier to the ocean, says Pedro de Araujo, professor of materials technology at the Federal Institute of Fluminense.
"The less sediment and sand that stabilized the coast has resulted in the sea devouring the city," says Araujo, who is doing his Ph. D. by analyzing river erosion and trying to model what it will mean for her delta in the future. He estimates that the river has one third of its original flow.
Deforestation of mangroves in recent decades has also made Atafona more vulnerable, says Araujo. According to the professor, the average position of the sea shifts five meters inland every year.
Experts have assessed possible solutions, such as building artificial barriers or dumping huge amounts of sand, but none of them seem effective enough to stop the advance of the ocean. The global rise in sea levels due to melting ice means that destruction will continue, and at a faster pace, Araujo said.
People often ask Assis, who thought she would inherit the hotel, if she was upset about the reversal of her city's fortunes. She says that she is grateful that she was born in Atafon, but that people should respect nature.
“I feel nostalgic for the house where I spent the summer,” she said, and pointed to the sea. "He's at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean."