El Niño and Climate Change Are Pushing California off a Cliff

Despite the state’s leading role in fighting global warming, it has been reluctant to retreat from the coast even as sea-level rise threatens communities.
Apartments teetering on the edge of an eroding cliff in Pacifica, California, on Jan. 27. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Feb 4, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

A 10-story-tall cliff in Pacifica, California, is crumbling as huge chunks of hillside, along with iron and concrete—evidence of years of attempts to fight the inevitable—plummet into the surf below. Perched atop this slow-motion coastal avalanche sits a row of apartment buildings, many now condemned and abandoned as waves spawned by El Niño batter the coast. Officials last week red-tagged at least 20 residences as unsafe for habitation.

This little beach town south of San Francisco is in the crosshairs of two great forces that California will grapple with for decades to come: poorly planned coastal development and the impacts of rising sea levels and storm surges.

El Niño, with its extreme high tides and punishing swells, offers a bleak glimpse into the not-too-distant future for the West Coast, when flooding and erosion will increasingly threaten infrastructure and communities. The clock is ticking loudly, but even in California, a state with the political will to fight climate change, a “stand your ground” mentality dominates coastal planning.

A 2009 study commissioned by state agencies found that if the models of climate scientists prove accurate and sea levels increase 4.6 feet by 2100, half a million Californians and $100 billion in private property and critical infrastructure will be underwater.

Imperiled buildings in Pacfica. (Photo: Josh Edelman/AFP/Getty Images)

In the Bay Area, San Francisco International Airport will vanish, as will a good portion of the city’s financial district and the entire waterfront. The 101 Freeway from south of San Francisco to Google headquarters in Mountain View would be submerged. Most of East Palo Alto would sink into the bay.

“Our work is cut out for us,” said Sarah Newkirk, senior coastal project director with the Nature Conservancy. “It’s not a palatable thing to talk about. People don’t want to talk about neighborhoods and their houses. That doesn’t go over very well. We’ve decided to invest in managed retreat in places that are lightly developed or underutilized—like coastal power plants. We’re looking at those as potential opportunities.”

The damaged Ventura Pier. (Photo: Al Seib/'Los Angeles Times' via Getty Images)

So far, this year’s El Niño has ripped pylons from piers in Pacifica and Ventura and swamped low-lying roads from San Diego to Santa Cruz. In Los Angeles County, authorities have spent millions of dollars to shore up a vulnerable stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway that threatens to tumble into the sea. El Niño storms historically are at their most relentless in February, so the next few weeks will likely continue to test coastal infrastructure.

“We’re going to know better where the vulnerability is, and the science of sea-level rise isn’t the question,” said Marc Beyeler, a lecturer and researcher in the department of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It’s the social political order and the culture. To Americans, even linguistically, it’s antithetical. We don’t retreat—we conquer.”

There are only a few case studies of “managed retreat” to point to on the California coast. But the outcome is undeniable—when structures are pulled back or removed entirely from the coast, the beach erodes and restores itself naturally.

An old Army officer’s club tottering on a bluff above the ocean at Fort Ord near Monterey was demolished in 2001 and its protective seawall dismantled. The beach had shrunk from 300 feet of sand to 11 inches, but without the coastal armoring, the beach has returned. A 2011 project in Ventura, which Beyeler managed while working with the California Coastal Conservancy, moved a bike path and parking lot back from the water’s edge 65 feet and replaced it with sand and cobblestone. Both of those spots are weathering El Niño just fine.

The Nature Conservancy recently launched a citizen science effort—“Phones and Drones”—calling on beachcombers with smartphones and hobby drone operators to capture images and footage of spots on the California coast suffering from El Niño–induced erosion and flooding.

“We realized that ourselves alone would never get the coverage we need for a full assessment of El Niño,” said Newkirk. “But there are lots of people out there all the time who we could tap into.” The data, she said, will be valuable to validate sea-level-rise models. The Nature Conservancy works with state agencies to evaluate the suitability of “natural infrastructure”—using nature to protect shorelines.

The fate of the coast lies largely in the hands of the California Coastal Commission, the powerful government agency that strictly regulates development along the state’s 840-mile-long shoreline. Pro-development commissioners have moved to oust Charles Lester, the commission’s executive director and a reliably conservation-minded leader. Dozens of former commissioners and environmental groups have urged the public to attend a hearing this month in which the commission will consider firing Lester.

The impact of El Niño could be an opportunity to shift policy toward adaptation and natural resilience, but instead coast watchers like environmental attorney Mark Massara expect these storm surges to produce more “hold the line” efforts. “Seawalls are not an emergency response, because El Niño is no surprise,” he said. “When the smoke clears, there will be tons of new seawalls built because of these storms.”

Seawalls and other coastal fortifications simply don’t work in the long run—witness the buildings teetering on the coastal cliffs above Pacifica. “There’s a zone of impermanence on the coast, and that’s all over the world,” said Beyeler. “We need to talk about it.”