The Endless High Tide
Climate change isn’t just a problem of our future -- it’s here. New research shows sea levels are rising twice as fast as predicted. Some projections are of eight feet or more by the year 2100. One of the results will be the remaking of coastlines and surf spots all over the planet. We will still surf, but most of the spots we know will be radically changed. Many will be gone. Surfing as we know it will soon be a thing of the past.
The last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere, several million years ago, seas were 100 feet higher than today. Like an ice cube plucked from the freezer on a hot day, our ice sheets haven’t melted yet, but they will. The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing one billion tons of ice -- that’s the weight of 10,000 aircraft carriers -- every day. Former NASA researcher James Hansen said the planet is gaining heat equivalent to four Hiroshima bomb explosions per second, and 90% of it goes into the ocean.
While the enormity of climate change is hard to grasp, its effects are already quite visible. In six months last fall, the US was hit by historic disasters on all major coastal fronts. Unprecedented rainfall and flooding cut Hanalei off from the rest of Kauai, fires and
mudslides buried houses and shut down the 101 freeway in Santa Barbara and, and two category five hurricanes hit Puerto Rico in two weeks, devastating an island of 3 million Americans. Climate experts forecast these types of phenomena to happen more frequently, and more intensely due to a cascade of effects as CO2 builds in the atmosphere.
Mainstream science predicts three to six feet of sea level rise by end of century. This doesn’t sound earth shattering, but the runways at San Francisco International start going underwater within 16 inches of present day high tide. One foot of vertical sea rise can mean 100 feet of inland creep, depending on topography. As Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell put it in his 2017 book, The Water Will Come, “the difference between 3 feet and 6 feet is the difference between a manageable coastal crisis and a decades long refugee disaster. For many Pacific Island nations, it is the difference between survival and extinction.” Kiribati has already purchased 20 square kilometers in Fiji, optioning the ability to relocate its entire population there.
What’s coming in California is the disappearance of beaches, the crumbling of Pacific Coast Highway, the flooding of beach towns. In places, it’s already here. (Sea levels won’t be the same everywhere; for every foot of global average sea level rise, for example, California will get 1.25 feet). According to the US Geological Survey coastal bluffs in Southern California could lose 62 to 135 feet by 2100, “and much more in some areas,” exposing 250,000 residents and $50 billion in property to erosion or flooding.
To put that in perspective, with just a foot of sea level rise, Venice residents would have to paddle down Abbot Kinney to get their coffee. With three feet, Laguna Beach would only have beaches at the lowest tides. With six feet, Southern California would likely see 67% of its beaches drowned. Even your Surfline webcams are threatened: 4,000 miles of fiber optic cable in coastal areas will be submerged within 15 years, according to a new University of Wisconsin study.
UC Santa Cruz professor and sea level rise expert Gary Griggs, PhD, discusses it in more immediate terms. “On the west coast, El Nino events cause sea level in the Bay Area to be a foot or two higher, for a month or two at a time. That’s like throwing in 50 years of sea level rise in the short term. Then you have king tides along with storm waves occurring simultaneously. Those events are going to be far more damaging. This is already happening.”
The first surf spots to drown will be the low tide spots, like SuperTubes, Stockton Avenue, Pitas Point, and Sand Spit. Beach breaks like Blacks, point breaks like Rincon and Malibu, and rock reef breaks like Sunset Cliffs and Steamer Lane, all significantly better at low tide, will be seriously degraded. Dan Reineman did his Stanford PhD thesis on California surfers’
home breaks and found, “By 2100 the best conditions experienced by more than 40% of respondents today will no longer occur.” The hardest hit California counties will be San Diego, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. Veteran coastal engineer Dave Revelle, PhD, said, “Almost everywhere in Santa Cruz is a low tide spot.” Hollow days will be spotted only rarely, like a California condor, winging in from a bygone era. But unlike the condor, there won’t be a comeback for low tide spots. They will sink into obscurity for millenia.
This fate won’t be brought on by some evil interloper, but by us. Our CO2 emissions are too high, and our approach to coastal erosion is hurting more than it helps.
Every country in the world attended the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. It was seen as a final opportunity to get serious after decades of gestures and inaction. Scientists agreed we must limit global warming to a 1.5C increase over pre-industrial temperatures in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Each country came up with a plan to bring their carbon emissions in line with that goal, then everyone added a 2C backup goal, and signed an agreement that they would stick to it. Trump later made us the only country on earth to pull out of the agreement, but it turns out many of the plans were not strong enough to achieve the 2C goal anyway. It would require every human on earth to limit their CO2 emissions to 1.6 metric tons per year. Americans emit 21.2 per year. And that’s with an average of less than two flights per year. If you’re going on strike missions for good swells, or break a lot of surfboards, which are almost all still petroleum based, that number is higher. I’ve been guilty of driving from Laguna Beach to Santa Barbara just to surf Sandspit. Many people in the world might not drive that far in their entire life, let alone for a single surf session. Twelve of the world’s 100 busiest airports are less than 5 meters above sea level, including New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, and Denpasar, so our ability to even go on strike missions will be in question.
So what can I do? I recycle, and try to limit my driving, usually. I buy locally produced goods and try to eat less meat. When the power company offered wind power, I signed up for it. I’ve called my congressman and demanded he treat climate change like the serious threat it is. (The commander of Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world, said in 20 to 50 years the place will be unusable.) These kinds of efforts will help slow the acceleration of sea level rise, if adopted on a mass scale. But business and government leaders have either dropped the ball or actively worked against climate change measures, and public opinion has been hijacked by confusion campaigns; 42% of Americans still don’t think climate change is caused by humans, while the science has been settled since the 1980s. What’s more, a lot of sea level rise is already coming because of what I did last month, and what my parents and their parents did decades ago. So how do we manage the coming rise in sea levels?
Our options are coastal armament or managed retreat. Little did I know as a kid, one of my home breaks was in the cross hairs of coastal armament, and was a perfect opportunity to prove that smarter developments can work in concert with nature.
I grew up riding Surfer’s Point in Ventura, and saw the dirt parking lot paved over, and bike path built in 1986. Just five years later the city was considering
armament -- rocks or a seawall -- as an emergency fix; the concrete was already crumbling into the ocean. Paul Jenkin, the Surfrider Foundation, and other groups fought for managed retreat instead.
The top of the point is a good habitat for managed retreat: a river mouth fanning-out into cobblestones and sand bars topped with scrubby dunes. There is an estuary that can partially absorb an incoming ocean, and there’s room for sand, plants and animals to migrate shoreward on nature’s timeline. After a decade, Jenkin and company won; the pavement was moved 80 feet inland, the beach was replenished with local river rock and sand, and native vegetation was restored. There is an even better bike path now, and erosion has all but stopped, even during the El Niño winter of 2015-2016, when California experienced beach erosion 76% higher than normal.
The lower part of the point , in contrast, shows how poorly the traditional approach, coastal armament, works. That area has a large paved promenade and seawall topped with a high rise hotel and three-story concrete parking garage. During the El Niño winter mentioned above, it suffered major damage, and the city placed jetty rocks along its base, doubling down on coastal armament. This reflects wave energy, creating backwash, increasing erosion, compounding currents on neighboring beaches where erosion is intensified, and disrupting the cyclical sand replenishment that comes each summer. Eventually the armament breaks down, leaving crumbling concrete fronting an even more eroded beach than if there had been no wall at all.
While the wave at the top of the point is intact, the inside of the point at high tide is a backwash-riddled hush puppy of a wave, only getting decent at the lowest tides, which are going away anyway. It’s clear that our actions can save or destroy our spots. But managed retreat requires a new calculus we’re not used to: putting a dollar amount on surf spots and beaches.
“Why do we build seawalls?” asks Dave Revelle. “Somebody’s house is $3 million. They build a half million dollar sea wall to save it. But what’s lost over time is the public trust resources, coastal access, seal haul outs, the sand castle building zone, the volleyball courts. We know how much in taxes the property owner pays, but we don’t know the value of coastal recreation. What is Surf City USA without the beach? What’s at stake is all the coastline, and surf spots, and tidepools and coastal critters that live and play there.”
Coastal armament means literally paving those areas over, and leaving what’s left to be eroded even faster, in an effort to protect beachfront investments.
It’s a debasing logic, justifying our ocean culture with dollars, and more than a small part of me hates it. But if we don’t, our surf spots simply don’t get consideration. That’s why Surfrider Foundation CEO Chad Nelson did his PhD thesis on “surfonomics.” He calculated in 2007 that Trestles drew in $8-13 million ($10-16M in 2018 dollars) in local spending, and had a value of $26 million ($32M in 2018). This was a new type of argument, one cited by California Coastal Commissioners that stopped the toll road project that threatened one of California’s best waves.
We need more studies, and they’re ongoing, but more importantly we need political will. What really stopped the toll road to Trestles was turnout. “It was amazing to see the groundswell of support that came for this thing,” said Nelson, “We had about 4000 people show up for the Coastal Commission hearing, the most attended in history. I call it the Woodstock of the surf conservation movement. There were people there in costumes, there were bands playing, it became celebratory...and because of the sheer amount of people, and the media, and the public, and the pressure that put on the Coastal Commission, they voted it down.”
We’re going to need people mobilizing against the next toll road or beachfront gated community; people voting for city council members and lawmakers who listen to environmental scientists; people strongly opposing to coastal armament projects.
Whether the next generation joins that fight is up in the air, however. Daniel Pauly, a preeminent fisheries scientist, pointed out the concept of shifting baselines: as we ruin some aspect of nature, whether a population of bluefin tuna, or a reef break, that degraded state becomes the new normal. As high tide becomes the new low tide, the crusty old locals of the future will rant about how much better it was “back in the day,” but this time they’ll be speaking truth, and future groms won’t know it, unless we don’t let them forget, or better yet, we don’t let that future come to pass.
Our coasts can easily end up armored to the teeth, with jetties and seawalls everywhere. From San Diego to Ventura, 30% of the coast, an amount Gary Griggs called “staggering,” is already armored. If this continues it will destroy our beaches, bluffs and waves, and it will be driven by wealthy property owners looking to protect their assets, people with beachfront houses on the North Shore, California, and every other coastline with waves, surfers that you and I know. Or we can make sure our city councils, developers and homeowners choose the integrity of the coast, the quality of the surf, the health of the littoral ecosystems we love.
The future of our coast is going to be a major environmental cause, the way stopping whale hunts, banning DDT, and fixing the ozone layer were. We won those, and we can win this one too. But it will take massive participation by surfers. This is about literally every surf spot, on every coastline, you’ve ever known. Sea levels are rising. So must we.