THE CALIFORNIA COAST GREW AND PROSPERED during a remarkable moment in history when the sea was at its tamest.
But the mighty Pacific, unbeknownst to all, was nearing its final years of a calm but unusual cycle that had lulled dreaming settlers into a false sense of endless summer.
Elsewhere, Miami has been drowning, Louisiana shrinking, North Carolina’s beaches disappearing like a time lapse with no ending. While other regions grappled with destructive waves and rising seas, the West Coast for decades was spared by a rare confluence of favorable winds and cooler water. This “sea level rise suppression,” as scientists call it, went largely undetected. Blinded from the consequences of a warming planet, Californians kept building right to the water’s edge.
But lines in the sand are meant to shift. In the last 100 years, the sea rose less than 9 inches in California. By the end of this century, the surge could be greater than 9 feet.
Wildfire and drought dominate the climate change debates in the state. Yet this less-talked-about reality has California cornered. The coastline is eroding with every tide and storm, but everything built before we knew better — Pacific Coast Highway, multimillion-dollar homes in Malibu, the rail line to San Diego — is fixed in place with nowhere to go.
But the world is getting hotter, the great ice sheets still melting, the rising ocean a slow-moving disaster that has already swept past California’s front door. Seaside cliffs are crumbling in Pacifica, bringing down entire buildings. Balboa Island, barely above sea level, is spending $1.8 million to raise the wall that separates it from the ocean.
Winter storms pummeled a Capistrano Beach boardwalk, turning the idyllic shoreline into a construction zone as bulldozers rushed to stack boulders into a barricade. From San Diego to Humboldt counties, homeowners scramble to fend off increasing erosion and storm surges, pleading with officials for bigger seawalls that can hold back the even bigger ocean.
There are only so many ways to play against the rising sea. Seawalls are one option, but they come with a hidden cost — forcing the sand before them to wash away. For every new seawall protecting a home or a road, a beach for the people is sacrificed.
Adding sand to disappearing beaches is another tactic, but that race against nature lasts only so long as there’s money and enough sand.
Then there’s what scientists and economists and number-crunching consultants call “managed retreat”: Move back, relocate, essentially cede the land to nature. These words alone have roiled the few cities bold enough to utter them. Mayors have been ousted, planning documents rewritten, campaigns waged over the very thought of turning prime real estate back into dunes and beaches.
Retreat is as un-American as it gets, neighborhood groups declared. To win, California must defend.
But at what cost? Should California become one long wall of concrete against the ocean? Will there still be sandy beaches or surf breaks to cherish in the future, oceanfront homes left to dream about? More than $150 billion in property could be at risk of flooding by 2100 — the economic damage far more devastating than the state’s worst earthquakes and wildfires. Salt marshes, home to shorebirds and endangered species, face extinction. In Southern California alone, two-thirds of beaches could vanish.
The state has both no time and too much time to act, spiraling into paralyzing battles over the why, who, when and how. It’s not too late for Californians to lead the way and plan ahead for sea level rise, experts say, if only there is the will to accept the bigger picture.
Returning after mudslides and wildfire. Rebuilding in flood zones. The human urge to outmatch nature is age-old. We scoff at the fabled frog that boiled to death in a pot of slowly warming water — but refuse to confront the reality of the sea as it pushes deeper into our cities.
We’ve all played by the shore and built castles in the sand, but seem to forget what happens next: The ocean always wins.
A town on the edge
ON THE BLUFFS AND SHORES OF PACIFICA, a postcard stretch of coastal hamlets just south of San Francisco, residents fear that planning for sea level rise means condemning their own community to extinction.
Here, what other cities in California are only beginning to worry about in the abstract is already a much-lived reality. Powerful waves crest over the main pier and threaten roads with names such as Beach Boulevard and Shoreview Avenue. Blasts of sand batter walls and homes. Windows shatter. Cliffs collapse. Residents bear witness to entire chunks of hillside crumbling into the surf below.
In one part of town, the ocean chewed away more than 90 feet of bluff in less than a decade.
People were able to walk Pacifica as an entire stretch of beach in the 1970s, but the open shoreline shrank over the years as the city built seawalls, piled rocks, coated its fragile sandstone cliffs with special concrete to protect what nature was taking by force.Play Video
Today, most of Pacifica’s coast is armored. But even with these defenses, the city still had to buy out a row of bluff-top homes, later converting the street into a trail. Down by the sand, more homes were removed and a public parking lot rebuilt 50 feet farther inland.
Along Beach Boulevard, signs caution dog walkers and joggers that waves may break over the seawall. The pavement is often wet from high surf. Cars are urged to keep moving. Locals are wise enough to not linger too long by the aging pier.
A woman who did was hit in 2006 by a wave that blew over. When she was finally able to breathe and open her eyes, she was stunned to find she had been swept to the back of someone’s garage, her arm hooked through a barbecue pit.
The shocks continued. Years of drought followed by heavy storms in 2016 forced more than a dozen bluff-top residences to be tagged as unsafe. Three apartment buildings — suddenly dangling off the edge — could not be saved and were demolished.