Climate change and sea-level rise threaten life on California’s beach


CALIFORNIA – Terry Johnson loved his Pacific Ocean condo – until it started collapsing down a cliff into the sea.

For 15 years, he’s been enjoying the sunset over the water from his back porch in Pacifica, a few miles southwest of San Francisco.

Dolphins swam next to it and hang gliders floating above it. But all this splendor was accompanied by dangers: the bluffs were weakening and the ocean was nibbling down.

“That last year, it just started going downhill,” he said. “It wasn’t a gradual thing.”

When he was startled by a loud noise around 4:30 AM, the floor was opening a few doors. In April 2010, authorities told him he needed to act before the entire building plunged into the ocean.

After a decade, UCLA report cautioned Johnson’s story won’t be unique: Tens of thousands of people living along California’s coast may be forced to flee in the coming decades as climate change causes sea levels to rise, making swathes of the state’s famous coast uninhabitable.

So far, these risks have not destroyed the dream of living on a California beach. Swinging homes near the edge of cliffs are still worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, the ocean continues to rise.

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No fear of hurricanes, beautiful scenery, perfect weather – that’s the promise of California coastal life. The cliffs cover most of the state’s coastgiving desired sites a panoramic and panoramic view of the ocean.

“The coast is what sells California…it’s part of who we are,” said Carla Farley, board member of the Greater San Diego Association of Realtors and Smart Coast CA, a group that advocates for property rights in issues related to the coast.

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All of this comes at a significant cost: billions and billions of dollars worth of homes lie on the coast, a University of California report found. While not every coastal home is owned by a millionaire, property values ​​generally approximate the ocean—regardless of the risk.

Sea level rise isn’t just a problem in California. March government study He says tens of thousands of homes will be at risk in the next 100 years in other locations, too — Miami, Atlantic City, New Jersey and Galveston, Texas.

Even the boss According to CNN, Joe Biden’s beach house in Delaware is at risk.

But the danger posed by rising seas is particularly evident in California, where bluffing avalanches have killed beachgoers and clifftop homes can quickly become unsafe as the ocean hits the coast below. Low coastal areas are also not immune, With the increase in flood risk.

Celebrity-owned homes cling to cliffs and chain-link fences that prevent rockfalls in idyllic Malibu in Los Angeles County, where the Santa Monica Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean.

In 2020, actor Anthony Hopkins sold his Malibu mansion for over $6.7 million Paid for it in 2001. This is despite the fact that the house that once sat on the edge of a bluff has been seriously eroded – and the house next door is burning in a fire.

To the south, the ocean encroaches on the sleepy beach town of San Diego County. Signs warning beachgoers to stay away from the cliffs at Torrey Pines State Beach, where beach access is often cut off at high tide as the ocean beats on the cliffs.

The danger is real: a few miles down the road, A treacherous avalanche killed three beachgoers in 2019.

The bluffs in San Diego County towns include mansions, condos, and a rail line that hugs the coast along the storied beachfront town of Del Mar.

It has always been a perilous location – erosion and tides are natural events that always change the landscape of the coast. Deceit is weakened by a variety of factors, not just rising seas.

But with rising expectations for sea level rise, experts are now Suppose living permanently on the ocean’s edge is not sustainable. The authorities are already taking steps to back off: Plans to move Del Mar railways inland In motion – at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

For the communities most at risk — places like Del Mar and Pacifica — it’s hard “to imagine anything but the inevitable need to slowly bring this neighborhood back,” said Charles Lister, director of the Center for Ocean and Coast Policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Science Institute.

Lister, a former director of the California Coastal Commission, said these kinds of changes will unfold over decades.

But even so, the idea of ​​phasing out vulnerable coastal neighborhoods can be politically toxic — especially when many of these homes cost millions of dollars.

“Rich people who live on the sand … just got scared,” said Dwight Worden, mayor of Del Mar.

He said there are plenty of ways to keep the sea away for decades. But the state’s long-term plans indicated the government was envisioning a future where some homes were no longer at risk – and this caused “hysteria” among homeowners.

‘Things will get worse’

Terry Johnson describes the feeling of giving up when Ocean came to his apartment. It was an affordable place to live, not a castle to defend.

He remembers a brief, futile attempt to climb a cliff – then the authorities intervened before someone was injured.

This is the nightmare scenario that homeowners, cities and coastal planners are collectively trying to avoid as more homes are threatened by rising sea levels.

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They often disagree about what to do next.

For those who live on the coast – or want to live there – the solution often seems obvious: maintain the status quo and enjoy life on the beach.

“We don’t think it’s snowing at the moment,” said Farley, whose organization has argued that property owners should be given more freedom to protect their homes from rising seas.

Farley said new homeowners should be advised of the risks because the level rise is real. But she said it was a gradual problem that in most cases could be pushed back for decades.

Buyers should know what they are getting into, and existing homeowners should be allowed to protect their properties, according to Farley. The nightmare scenario for homeowners is government regulations that prevent them from saving their homes.

In practice, coastal planning experts fear This often means bluff shielding – essentially coating them with concrete so they can better withstand rising waves.

But these experts say that filling the coast with concrete does not solve the problem of rising sea levels. It often makes things worse.

For one thing, if the cliffs were frozen in place, the beaches beneath them would slowly disappear as the sea rose.

“We want a beach that people can recreate on,” said Kelsey Ducklow, coastal resilience coordinator with the California Coastal Commission.

The commission says California law requires it to protect the state’s beaches. And she wants communities along the coast to start planning for what happens because the ocean is slowly threatening more homes.

“It’s only going to get worse in the coming decades,” Ducklow said. “There’s a lot at stake.”

Homeowners fear what’s next

Residents in Del Mar seemed a little worried about sea level rise and a lot more about what would happen to their homes in Tense city council meeting 2019 About California’s plan to manage sea level rise in their community.

Resident Julie Hamilton said the state believes “we all need to pack our bags and go somewhere else, because sea level rise is coming. And I don’t think that’s what this city wants to do.”

The dispute was over a long-term plan for how society should manage rising sea levels. The state was planning a future where homes on the edge might need to be phased out. It was not the city.

City and state wrangling over issue after issue, with Del Mar officials saying their plans for sea-level rise were extensive, backed by science and would allow for more gradual change along the city’s coast.

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Amanda Lee, the town’s chief planner, said the state’s location in the high-risk buildings would need to be upgraded: “They’re asking us to plan for an extreme event now, and that’s not necessary.” Stricter than the federal standard that Del Mar follows.

But coastal planners often say their focus is on avoiding crisis — whether months, years or decades come down the road — rather than maintaining the status quo.

“We can see these effects coming… Shall we wait until the moment of the disaster?” asked Julia Stein, deputy director of UCLA’s Emmett Institute for Climate Change and Environment.

Stein joined other experts in stressing that the coast changes more during extreme weather events — such as unusually heavy rainfall in California. This means that stable slopes can quickly become unstable; Unstable slopes can collapse quickly.

The state has spent about $12 million on grants designed to help communities map out their plan for rising seas, but so far only six have been completed and approved by the state. Dozens of others are in progress.

Ducklow says the commission does not want to force thousands of people from their homes – this is not yet necessary and in some cases may never be.

Ducklow says that pretending that all the homes along the coast will be safe forever is wrong and dangerous.

As societies finalize their plans for the coming decades, detailed attempts to slow the ocean’s progress will continue. Among the most common: the task charged with transporting tons of sand to modernize worn beaches.

But Stein says it’s all a stalling tactic that delays and complicates longer-term solutions: “Kick the can on the road.”

Contributing: Crystal Hayes


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