California's recent king tides hint at what life might be like at iconic beaches if sea levels continue to rise. Photo: Tyler Schiffman

California’s recent king tides hint at what life might be like at iconic beaches if sea levels continue to rise. Photo: Tyler Schiffman

The Inertia

It’s part of the modus operandi of surfers to pay careful attention to the holy trinity of wave quality before paddling out at their local: swell (period, direction, etc.), wind, and tide. So, it’s unlikely the king tides that impacted the California coast on January 20-21 this year went unnoticed.

In Los Angeles, an early morning high tide reached 6.9 feet on January 20th, lapping against support beams of homes perched along the Malibu beachfront and flooding the Malibu Lagoon.

King tides are bi-annual natural occurrences and are so-called because they’re the absolute highest tides experienced at a coastal area. In recent years, though, king tides have become windows into the not-so-distant future as the planet warms, polar ice caps melt, and sea levels rise.

It’s one thing to talk about the effects of climate change in hypotheticals. It’s quite another to see peak water levels along the coast and ask yourself, “What if this were the new normal?”

That’s precisely the logic between countless events organized by non-profits and government agencies around these giant tidal swings last week designed to educate the public about sea level rise.

This year, the Surfrider Foundation partnered with LightHawk, a flight-based conservation organization, to coordinate flights with elected officials, photographers, subject experts, and reporters to observe the impacts of these extreme high tides on coastal areas across the country. The hope, according to a press release is that the aerial perspective would, “motivate elected officials and local communities to proactively improve coastal management for the future.”

Aerial comparison of Malibu after king tides.

An aerial photo of Malibu Lagoon from 2012 (left) and last week (right) shows the impact of California’s recent king tides. Photo: Bill Parr (L)/Tyler Schiffman (R)

“Better understanding what future sea level rise might look like for coastal communities is imperative,” said Surfrider’s Coastal Preservation Manager, Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, of the more than 20 flights that took place last week. “Over the next 30 years, nearly 300,000 homes and commercial properties in the U.S., valued at over $136 billion, will be vulnerable to sea level rise. Unfortunately, more than half of coastal states nationwide have continued to build in risky, flood-prone areas over the past decade. We are hopeful our King Tide flights will inspire decision-makers and local communities to improve coastal management in light of future climate change impacts.”

In addition to simply seeing the tides from above, LightHawk’s flights also provide participants with information about where and how to implement adaptation strategies.

At Malibu, local photographer Tyler Schiffman spent two days photographing the monstrous tides. A photo of First Point Malibu shows the Malibu Lagoon virtually indistinguishable from the ocean where typically sand divides them. Waves continue to wrap into the famed right point (even though it’s the off season for Malibu), but the beach itself is almost unrecognizable from above.


As sea levels continue to rise as predicted, projections are bleak. According to a 2017 U.S. Geological Survey report, between a third and two-thirds of Southern California beaches will be underwater in 100 years. “Zuma, Redondo, and Del Mar, among many others, could all but disappear,” writes the LA Times.

Homes in Malibu during king tide 2019.

The ocean lapped homes on a Malibu beachfront last week where once there was a stretch of beach during extreme high tides.

King tides may be a window into the future, but, depending on your vantage, they serve as a warning. That if drastic measures aren’t undertaken to reverse the course of climate change, surf spots, beaches, and homes along the coast are especially vulnerable. The question remains: are we paying attention?


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