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Bedrock exposed at low tide along the beach at Isla Vista, California. Photo: Alex Snyder/U.S. Geological Survey

Bedrock exposed at low tide along the beach at Isla Vista, California. Photo: Alex Snyder/U.S. Geological Survey


The Inertia

According to a study recently published in The Journal of Geophysical Research, nearly 70 percent of Southern California’s beaches will be gone less than 100 years. It’s already happening–sea levels are rising and the climate is warming far too quickly than it naturally would–but many have their heads in the sand. It brings to mind a certain situation I found myself in. Bear with me for a minute.

A few years ago, I was a snag faller for a wildfire crew. My falling partner and I had just spent most of the day doing something called jackpotting–essentially tipping trees into each other to form massive teepees–for a prescribed burn our crew was going to light. A few minutes after we started the burn, the wind switched, blowing hard back at us. That’s a dangerous situation to be in when you’ve just lit a forest on fire and you’re depending on the wind to take it away from you.

I was on a trail a bulldozer had pushed in around the fire’s perimeter, lighting along its eastern edge. The fire was going well when the wind turned west, and suddenly I found myself engulfed in thick, acrid smoke. With two crew members, I bolted for clear air, only to find that there was none. It was an odd feeling when we decided to simply lie down with our faces in the dirt and wait it out–sort of like giving up, but trying to stay calm, telling ourselves that it wasn’t all that bad when it obviously was. “We’re in flavor country now,” said one, gagging through his words, trying to stay upbeat. The smoke was too thick to see, but I could hear the other vomiting through a smoke-filled throat, gasping for air in between retches. There were only a handful of situations where I actually felt in danger through my firefighting career, and that was one of them. All the while, though, despite very clear signs that I was in a bad spot, something in my brain refused to actually understand what was happening around me. Of course, everything turned out fine and we escaped with nothing more than burning eyes and scorched throats, but the severity of the situation is far more obvious now that I’m not in it… which, I think, is exactly what’s happening with many of the people who refuse to believe what science is telling them. It’s just too scary to wrap your brain around, so people don’t.

Let’s get back to the study. Using the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal Storm Modeling System, the study’s authors said that if we just sit around doing what we’re doing now, we’re in for some very drastic changes. “Predictions of shoreline can be with limited human intervention indicate that 31% to 67% of Southern California beaches may become completely eroded by 2100 under sea-level rise scenarios of 0.93 to 2.0 m,” they wrote. Despite the fact that shoreline changes are notoriously hard to predict, theU.S. Geological Survey has a good track record. “… scientists are confident in the accuracy and reliability of the model’s predictive capability applied to the forecast period (2010-2100),” they explained, “because of how accurately the model is able to reproduce the historical shoreline change between 1995 and 2010.”

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Since the ’30s, about 70 percent of Southern California beaches have actually been growing in size. According to the study, that’s largely because of artificial beach nourishments (read: dumping lots of sand).

Those beaches, of course, are a huge draw for the economy. According to the OC Register, “the coast generates about $40 billion in tourism and other revenues…scientists said beach erosion of a level described in the report could be an economic catastrophe.”

On top of that, they also act as a barrier between the ocean and the 22.68 million people that live in the area. On a local scale, finding a solution seems to be very nearly impossible. “This study indicates that we will have to perform massive and costly interventions to preserve these beaches in the future under the erosive pressures of anticipated sea level rise, or risk losing many of the economic and protective benefits beaches provide,” said USGS geologist and co-author, Patrick Barnard.

The California Coastal Commission, plagued by controversy over the last few years, has responded. According to an email from CCC Public Information Officer, they’re “advising coastal towns to replenish the sand on their beaches, elevate or move structures inland, and use sea level rise projections to plan future development. Buildings may also be protected by sea walls but these barriers should be used sparingly because they ruin natural sand replenishment and could further exacerbate the issue down the road.” Fighting nature is a tough thing to do.

Installing large boulders as rip rap to armor the shore against further erosion at Goleta Beach in Southern California. The tide is very low (negative). Daniel Hoover/U.S. Geological Survey

Installing large boulders as rip rap to armor the shore against further erosion at Goleta Beach in Southern California. The tide is very low (negative). Daniel Hoover/U.S. Geological Survey

“The prospect of losing so many our beaches in Southern California to sea level rise is frankly unacceptable,” said the commission’s Executive Director Jack Ainsworth in a statement Monday. “The beaches are our public parks, and (the) economic heart and soul of our coastal communities. We must do everything we can to ensure that as much of the iconic California coast is preserved for future generations.”

Although the intentions are good, it seems like a losing battle, especially if the people in power continue playing with fire. The ocean, after all, isn’t something that we can tame, and in the end, she’ll do what she wants. Getting our heads out of the sand, though, might be the best way to nip a very worrisome problem in the bud… even though the bud is quickly becoming a terrifying flower.


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