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Lessons from California on how to adapt to sea level rise

With waves crashing against the rocks just below the railroad tracks, surfers walk along a shrinking North Beach in San Clemente on Wednesday, October 20, 2021. Sea-level rise is often pointed to as the unbeatable culprit chomping away at Southern California's most popular asset. But rising seas aren't the only reason the coastline is disappearing. Decades of development along the coast blocked sand flow to beaches. (Photo by Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
With waves crashing against the rocks just below the railroad tracks, surfers walk along a shrinking North Beach in San Clemente on Wednesday, October 20, 2021. Sea-level rise is often pointed to as the unbeatable culprit chomping away at Southern California's most popular asset. But rising seas aren't the only reason the coastline is disappearing. Decades of development along the coast blocked sand flow to beaches. (Photo by Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

The Pacific Ocean off the California coast could rise more than six feet by the end of this century, according to some estimates.

“We have a lot of time before some of these big changes. I mean, you could say 2100, you know, I’m not even going to be alive in 2100,” Charles Lester, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center in the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara, says.

“But the changes that we should be thinking about in order to be resilient then … needs to start now.”

That rising water is forcing the state and its coastal communities to completely rethink their viability, resilience, and even their resistance to change.

“What does it mean to actually protect the coast in the face of sea level rise? Is protecting the coast, truly holding the line, and maintaining the world as we know it,” Rosanna Xia, environmental reporter for the LA Times, says.

“Is maintaining the status quo what we actually want? Have we actually stopped to think about that?”

Today, On Point: Lessons from California on what must change for everyone in a world of rising water.


Rosanna Xia, environmental reporter for the LA Times. Author of “California Against the Sea: Visions for our Vanishing Coastline.

A.R. Siders, director of the Climate Change Hub and professor on climate change adaptation at the University of Delaware.

Also Featured

Serge Dedina, former mayor of Imperial Beach, California and Co-Founder and Executive Director of Wildcoast.

Charles Lester, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center in the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara.

Angela Mooney D’Arcy, founder and executive director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Imperial Beach is the Southernmost beach town on the California coast – it’s right up against the Mexican border. Former mayor Serge Dedina describes it this way:

SERGE DEDINA: It’s the last really blue collar, funky beach town left in Southern California. We’re a majority minority community. It’s 4 square miles surrounded by water really on all 4 sides.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s not exactly an island. But Imperial Beach was developed in the early 1900s. And it’s built on filled-in mud flats, and it’s surrounded to the south by the Tijuana Estuary and to the north by the wetlands of South San Diego Bay. And of course, to the west, there’s the Pacific Ocean.

Dedina has seen some very high tides surge on Imperial Beach over the years, but it was one day in the winter of 2018 that sticks most in his mind. Forecasters had predicted king tides – those super high tides that coincide with a new or full moon.

DEDINA: So the surf was very short interval, 8 to 10 foot. I saw something I hadn’t really seen in a long time, or something I’d seen during hurricane swells in the tropics. The ocean was angry.

And with my lifelong friend, Robert Stabenow, who was the lifeguard chief, we’ve been spent the last 45 years surfing these waves, lifeguarding together. And then we saw this wall of water coming at us, just like this wall of water that I was actually filming and then just got enveloped in it. 

CHAKRABARTI: That’s the sound that Dedina recorded of that wall of water. He was at the south end of the beach where the streets and developments end. And he watched the seawater come up over the dunes, flood a parking lot, and flow into the neighboring estuary.

DEDINA: A lot of guys were like, “You should block it up.” And one guy started trying to shovel sand into it. But I’ve seen California state parks. They get bulldozers, and they bulldoze up the berms to stop flooding and this year we had some big surf and it just wiped it all out overnight.

CHAKRABARTI: Dedina says Imperial Beach is lucky to have these natural estuaries that can absorb some of the flooding. However, some estimates show the Pacific Ocean rising more than six feet by the next century. Dedina says Imperial Beach could see 1/3 of the town disappear in the coming decades.

Now those king tides and coastal flooding that Serge Dedina experienced as mayor forced him to switch his focus from town improvements — like fixing the library and putting in sidewalks — to investing in cleaning up and preparing for future king tides.

Similar, sudden rethinking is happening up and down California’s 1,200 miles of coastline. If you turned California on its side and stretched out those 1,200 miles of coastline, it would reach from New York City all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s that long, and that varied. Which is why, there are lessons from California’s changing relationship with its coast for everyone who lives near rising water anywhere.

Rosanna Xi is an environmental reporter for the LA Times where she focuses on the coast. She was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for her work covering rising sea levels.

She won the 2020 Pulitzer prize for explanatory reporting for her work covering rising sea levels. And she has a new book out now. It’s called “California Against the Sea: Visions for our Vanishing Coastline.”

And Rosanna joins us from LA. Welcome to On Point.

ROSANNA XI: Hi, Megnha.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, let’s take a little virtual journey from the tip of the Southern California coast all the way to the Northern California coast where it borders with the state of Oregon. So that first, I don’t know, couple of hundred miles from, let’s say, the Mexican border to a little bit of north of Los Angeles.

What is the coastline like there?

XI: Yeah, and I, oh my goodness, really appreciated hearing Serge Dedina’s reflections just now out of Imperial Beach. And just, I think, talking about Southern California alone I think of that from Santa Barbara all the way to Imperial Beach, and that’s some of the most iconic coastline in California, right?

Like we think of Santa Monica, we think of Malibu, and we’ve got these images of wide, flat, sandy beaches, some cliffs if you go down along San Diego, lots of estuaries and river plains, but it’s almost like we are blind to this looming disaster of sea level rise. Because so much of it is sunshine filled and the way we’ve altered our environments make us think that, “Hey, the beach is going to be here forever.”

CHAKRABARTI: So we have those iconic sandy beaches in Southern California. What does it change into as you move further north?

XI: Yeah, more cliffs. I think most folks can conjure an image of Big Sur, the Monterey Bay, and then as you go further north, San Francisco, folks in San Francisco think they’re in Northern California, but there’s like another six, seven hours of driving north of San Francisco.

The Sonoma coast, I call it Malibu North, also, amazing cliffs that like plummet straight into the ocean, cobbled beaches, really cool rock formations, and then, further north you have Mendocino, Humboldt, Del Norte County, and that’s where it gets really similar to the landscapes of the Oregon coast.

CHAKRABARTI: Meaning more cliffs, different kinds of forests, things like that.

XI: Yes, the redwoods. Thank you for reminding me. I feel like when you hit Santa Cruz, you’re like, Oh my God, there are forests right by the ocean.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, it gets pretty rocky also up there. And I just want to note for everyone that as you move North, the water, the Pacific, gets much colder, so there isn’t year-round swimming. (LAUGHS)

XI: I mean it’s pretty cold, not like the Atlantic.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. The reason why I wanted to ask that is because the geology and ecology of the California coastline is quite varied, which means that even though everyone is having to face a future of much higher ocean, the ways they might have to deal with it are different.

So can you then describe to me, we talked about the natural features of the coastline, what about the human features, the communities, like how would you describe what they’re like in various places on the coast?

XI: Yeah, and there are so many interesting communities up and down the coast. You were saying it’s 1,200 miles long.

And each of these places have their like own landscapes and histories and problems and social histories in the way we developed. And I’m thinking about Imperial Beach. It’s, as you said, surrounded on three sides by water. By the Bay, the Tijuana River and the ocean. So that’s a unique situation for that community.

And, yeah, it’s just, it’s interesting because as I was thinking about, just through the course of my reporting how to tell the story of the California coast, on the one hand, all these communities are so different and have their own kind of sets of concerns and values and priorities and what they’re afraid of.

On the other hand, the ocean knows no bounds, right? Just because you build a seawall in one town doesn’t mean that at the end of that town boundary the ocean just stops. And so thinking about how to piece together and think about this broader landscape while also attending to the communities, for example, along the San Francisco Bay shoreline.

And communities that are placed on top of former toxic waste sites, versus Laguna Beach, some of the most expensive real estate in the country where, someone might own two-multimillion-dollar homes next to each other so that no one ever blocks their ocean view. The range is truly incredible in California.

And I think really just figuring out how all these people belong into one conversation about the future of this very varied and dynamic landscape has been truly interesting. So help me understand something though. I guess if this is not unique to California at all, but I’m wondering if there’s a story behind why so much, or so many coastal communities in California are built basically right up to the waterline or as close as they can get. And they’ve been, they’ve been there for decades upon decades. Is there a particular reason for that?

XI: Yeah. I think A) our human condition seems to, throughout history, we’ve just been drawn to the water.

There’s something about living at the edge, of just the edge between where land meets the most massive body of water on the planet. There’s something really magical about that. And I think, anywhere you look, there are coastal communities. It’s where we build our harbors. It’s where, historically, our trade centers are.

And in California, one of the most fascinating fun facts I learned in the course of my reporting is that our like peak development in the post-World War II era coincided with this blip in the cycle called the Pacific decadal oscillation where basically sea level rise got suppressed for a couple decades, because of like the way the ocean and atmosphere interacts.

We talked a lot about El Nino, La Nina in California. So that’s a climate cycle that folks are familiar with, but there’s also the Pacific decadal oscillation. And basically, during the quote-unquote quiet periods of the cycle, the winds pull essentially the warmer water offshore and then the cold water inhabits the areas closest to the shoreline.

And, if you think about it, warm water expands, cold water takes up less space. So we have the sea level rise suppression just at the point when we were building the California coast, as we know it today, settling the shoreline and our population boom.

It’s fascinating because I think of it today and we built right to the water’s edge, but the water’s edge was so much farther. And now the water is trying to move in.

CHAKRABARTI: That is really interesting. We’ve just got about a minute till our first break. Do you know if there was a sort of an adequate understanding of that particular oscillation of sea level at the time the surge in development happened?

Or were people just, “Wow, the water is great. It’s perfect. It has been for a couple of years, so let’s build.”

XI: I think we were pretty blinded to the forces of the ocean back then, and I would say we still are today. This idea that we can fix, quote-unquote line in the sand through hardened infrastructure through our coastal highway through sea walls, through entire neighborhoods and cities.

That idea totally is in conflict with the fact that our coastline is essentially meant to move. If you go out to the beach, the tideline is never the same twice. And just not recognizing that and building our development in a way that is counter to this natural dynamic process along our shoreline is what got us into the situation in the first place.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: So Rosanna, let’s pick up on that vanishing coastline part. Can you describe some of the changes in some of the communities that you’ve reported on that have occurred in the past, even just couple of years, regarding where the water is, the shape of the coastline, the integrity of the homes right on the coast, that kind of thing.

XI: Yeah. And we were just talking about fixed lines in the sand that we have drawn between ocean and what we want to call land. And, you said this at the beginning, but the numbers are pretty stark. We’re looking at as much as six, maybe seven feet of sea level rise by the end of the century.

And the consensus at the moment, among state agencies in California, is to prepare all our communities and infrastructure for three and a half feet of sea level rise by 2050. Three and a half feet by 2050 is not that far into the future. And, to put things into perspective, when I first started looking into this, I was like, what does one foot of sea level rise look like?

And so I find it helpful to imagine that generally speaking, for every one foot of sea level rise, the ocean actually moves about 300 feet inland, so that’s like an entire football field. So think about that and like the coastline that you know it today and what 300 feet inland would look like per foot of sea level rise.

And in terms of communities, like I’m thinking about Capitola in Santa Cruz, or just outside of Santa Cruz, and it’s this funky, really cool little beach town with their colorful, iconic apartment buildings, condos right on the sand, literally right on the sand, and it’s buttressed by the seawall that’s barely ankle high. And it was built in the ’20s. I think it was one of the first condos actually to be built along the coast in California, and they go for, millions and millions of dollars and I see it on Instagram all the time.

These again like iconic places in California, and back in early 2020, I was walking this stretch of coast with a renowned coastal geologist in Santa Cruz, Gary Griggs, and we were both looking at this town and kind of the homes right on the beach and we were both thinking this will probably go underwater one day. And I don’t think either of us thought that one day would be less than three years later.

With the storms that happened earlier this year was like back-to-back swells and rain and flooding from the river at the creek as it was going towards the ocean. But the ocean was pushing in, and the creek had nowhere to go. And yeah, it became the poster child earlier this year for sea level rise in California, for flooding in California.

And it’s just, it’s truly stunning. Because we think this is an issue that is years or decades from now. And I hear the term slow moving disaster so much in the sea level rise space, but this is an issue that’s happening now. Seven feet, by six or seven feet by the end of century.

Yeah, that sounds apocalyptic and so far off in the future that feels like sci fi. But it’s just, we’re at this threshold where just a little bit of something else as we compound all these factors, add an El Nino year, a big winter swell and just a higher-than-normal tide. And we really do get this flooding in communities today, but we are not prepared for that.

CHAKRABARTI: So just to be clear, those condos that you were looking at are gone now. No, so the flooding was pretty bad, but just the ocean just swept through it. And if go back through kind of the archives on Instagram, online video, it’s just the waves just swept right through.

It was like the tide, the ocean just went right through it. And it carried debris and sand and the homes got pretty battered in the ocean again, like moved many hundreds of feet inland, it looked like. And President Biden and Gavin Newsom did their press conference there earlier this year.

It was like the backdrop to, again, like all of the disaster that happened this past winter in California storms.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s interesting. It’s almost as if California and its coastal communities, like you said, because of the time in which they were really built up in that that other oceanic cycle where there was actually a suppressed sea level rise.

Have had it really lucky until recently. And maybe that luck has until now lulled communities into thinking that what was beautiful in the past will be beautiful forever. That is quite different than, I’m thinking of the Gulf coast of the United States or a lot of the Eastern seaboard that gets hit with hurricanes a lot every year, right?

XI: For so long, I would say we don’t get hurricanes and we’re not Florida, but I live in Los Angeles and we just had our first hurricane in the century a couple weeks ago. Hurricane Hilary. That’s also a reality that’s happening more and more so today.

CHAKRABARTI: But I wonder if that means that California is suddenly waking up and having to catch up with the kind of change in mindset that’s been, not exactly a fact of life because people on the Gulf Coast and the East can be very stubborn, too.

But a reality that disturbance and disaster is going to be a new critical part of the way of living there.

XI: Yeah, and I think it’s interesting because, look, let’s take Louisiana. Or Miami. These are places that are in the news so often when it comes to sea level rise and flooding and disasters.

Houston got hit so hard with flooding a couple years ago. And what’s fascinating to me in those places is, okay, so now we see what it looks like when a community gets hit by disaster and we didn’t plan ahead. But then the rebuilding process, this idea of What resilience actually is and this idea that, “Okay, we just got hammered by nature and we shall rebuild stronger. But exactly the way we had it before.” That is something that I’m also hoping to expand our way of thinking about, and that’s happening in California, too. Okay. If the ocean moves in, if we just got hit by water, is the response to just build a higher wall? Is the response to rebuild the communities that got washed away?

In the same place that we now know water is trying to move back into, and so I think those conversations are happening in other communities along other coastlines, but again, it’s are we being imaginative enough? Are we being forward thinking enough? And also like for the folks who did lose their home, how are they getting taken care of?

The chaos that has ensued after a disaster is such a glimpse into the future for so many other communities. And I think in California right now, we’re looking at what’s happening in all these other places. We’re starting to feel it, like in Capitola. But again, we can do so much to prepare ahead of time, if only we started that conversation now. But that starting that conversation now is scary. What happened in Imperial Beach and translating that space between, okay, we know that we don’t need to necessarily change tomorrow, but if we started tomorrow or today, we could save off a lot of just pain and disaster.

Before the disaster actually hit.

CHAKRABARTI: So in your book, you’re hitting on something very important and that is the way we talk about this word resilience, right? Because the way it’s defined, that helps guide the kind of policies where we are going to build around or create around coping with climate change and sea level rise.

But as you suggest, maybe we ought to think a little differently about how we conceive of resilience. So on that point, Rosanna, we reached out to Charles Lester. He’s director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I’m sure you know him very well. And he’s spent the last 30 years working on and thinking about the California coast.

And he talks about the notion of resilience. And he told us it really starts with the idea of systems.

CHARLES LESTER: It’s very much rooted in a scientific framework where people are analyzing a system, a chemical or physical or some kind of engineered system. And there’s a disruption to it. And the question becomes, “Okay, how resilient is that system to that disruption?” Would call a system resilient if it could recover and get back to its functioning of what it was doing, right?

Without a collapse or a failure of some sort.

CHAKRABARTI: So a system that can be perturbed but returned to its previously functioning state. Now, of course, we also try to describe people as resilient if they can manage hardship, life challenges, and bounce back to what they once were. But, when faced with climate change, Lester suggests that we need to shift away from the goal of bouncing back.

LESTER: When the system itself is changing, so when you’ve got this complex system that has environmental forces and social forces, and they’re interacting, and that’s what we’re talking about along a dynamic shoreline, right? People doing things along an environment that’s inherently dynamic, but now you’ve got this change happening that is really causing a phase shift in that system.

So the sea level is going up now at a higher rate than it did before. What does that mean for the functioning of the system? And might it be the case that to be resilient isn’t a question of trying to recover what we used to have in that system before, but what could we have in the system that will be?

Because there’s so much change happening in components of that system, it doesn’t make sense to say resilience means building back to the condition of before and surviving and continuing to function. Because the other changes in the system are so great that you’re not going to be able to do that.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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