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California May Lose Popular Surfing Spots to Rising Seas

A changing climate may make iconic breaks disappear

A surfer at Huntington Beach in Southern California (Mcclane2010 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0))
smithsonian.com

It may seem that stronger storms and swells would be a boon to surfers. But as with many aspects of living in a changing climate, the outlook is far more complicated.

As a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey predicts, by 2100 many of Southern California's most popular surfing spots could be subsumed beneath rising seas. Others could simply wash away. 

Beaches are not static places. The very action of the waves that formed them, pulverizing rocks into sand over eons, can unmake them, reports Ramin Skibba for Hakai Magazine. "In Southern California, winter storms and heavy surf pull sand away, and summer waves and sediment from rivers gradually bring it back," Skibba writes.

Climate change could alter that balance, the new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, suggests. In the next eight decades, Southern California may have to deal with a sea level rise of between 3.3 and 6.5 feet that could erode 31 to 67 percent of the region's beaches, the researchers say. 

That would be a loss for surfers that seek out long, scenic rides at Topanga, the bizarre and brutal break called "The Wedge" at Newport or the classic and beloved "Lower Trestles" outside of San Clemente. (All make Surfer Today's list of the best Southern California surf spots.) Surf spots where waves break at low tide may disappear when the sea level rises. Spots where waves break at high tide will only break at low tide. ​

The new study took the sea level rise predicted by the latest report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and applied a model to predict changes to the SoCal shoreline under that regime. By first comparing the model's outputs to the data from the past, between 1995 to 2010, they determined that it could predict shoreline changes well. They then forecast changes for the rest of the 21st century. 

 “These model results show that if sea levels get as high as expected, it means pretty serious consequences for the coastal zone,” lead author Sean Vitousek, an engineer at the University of Illinois, tells Hakai. The loss the team predicted is based on limited human intervention in terms of beach management — dredging sand from farther out and bring it back, for example— and armoring, such as building seawalls.

Those measures might prevent some beach erosion, but they don't have surfer's needs in mind. For The Inertia, an online surfing community, surfer and scientist Shawn Kelly explains the serious effects climate chance will have on the sport. He brings his authority as a program manager for the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project to bear.

Kelly writes:

Coastal erosion will likely accelerate surf zones will become narrower and, as in the reef example, surf-tide relationships will change. All of our surf spots will be affected by the phenomena of coastal squeeze.

Coastal squeeze occurs as follows. As sea levels rise, coastal habitats like salt marshes, if in an entirely natural situation, would respond by migrating landward or “rolling back” to adjust their position to the best ecological fit for the new sea level. Rising land, development, or fixed man-made structures such as seawalls prevent or severely limit this landward movement, restricting the ability for beaches to adapt to rising sea levels. The coastal habitats, if present, are therefore squeezed between rising sea levels and fixed defense lines or higher land, therefore there is a risk the beach and adjacent coastal habitat may be lost altogether.

Southern California surfers aren't the only ones that should be concerned. Farther north, researchers have made forecasts for Santa Cruz's beaches and the surrounding area, reports James Urton for The San Jose Mercury News.

Breaks will move closer to shore and disappear. Big winter storms could move farther north and take their big waves with them, he writes. But ultimately it's hard to predict exactly what will happen to any one spot. Surfers may just take that uncertainty in stride, as one local tells Urton.

"We'll roll with it," says Pete Ogilvie, who has surfed Monterey Bay for more than 30 years.

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