California's Iconic Coastline Is Being Snatched Up By Rising Sea Levels Faster Than Previously Thought

Pam Wright
Published: May 17, 2017

Exposed bedrock at Isla Vista beach, California.
(Alex Snyder/U.S. Geological Survey)

California risks losing thousands of miles of its iconic coastline as climate-driven sea levels rise faster than anyone anticipated, a new report says. 

The state-commissioned report conducted by the California Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team determined that if nothing changes, California’s coastal waters will rise at a rate 30 to 40 times faster than in the previous century. The news came on the heels of a U.S. Geological Survey report released in March that estimates that as much as 67 percent of Southern California’s beaches could be lost to rising seas by the end of the century if nothing is done to curb the carbon emissions that lead to global warming.

The impacts on the state that already has some of the most stringent carbon emissions regulations in the country would be far-reaching and devastating, researchers note. 

“Beaches are perhaps the most iconic feature of California, and the potential for losing this identity is real," said lead author of the USGS study Sean Vitousek. "The effect of California losing its beaches is not just a matter of affecting the tourism economy. Losing the protecting swath of beach sand between us and the pounding surf exposes critical infrastructure, businesses and homes to damage. Beaches are natural resources, and it is likely that human management efforts must increase in order to preserve them."

(MORE: New Maps Show Exactly Which Homes Will Go Under If Sea Levels Rise)

Calmatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media site, notes that some of the more recognizable state features that would be impacted by rising seas include San Francisco and Oakland International airports, which would become unusable from flooding. More than 2,000 miles of roadways would be closed and more houses sitting on coastal bluffs will crash into the sea. Flooding will overwhelm rivers and strain levees that serve California's water supply and power plants and nuclear waste sites will need to be fortified or lost. According to the study, more than 42,000 homes in California will be completely underwater by the turn of the century.

An example of the shoreline data for La Jolla Shores, California. The many squiggly colored lines indicate the changing location of the shoreline through time since 2004.
(Sean Vitousek, U.S. Geological Survey)

The expected cost of rising sea levels on the state is staggering. 

Just this past winter, repeated storms battering the state's coastline resulted in a preliminary cost estimate of $569 million and a federal disaster declaration. This type of scenario will not be the exception but the norm in the years to come, and the price tag by the end of the century could reach into the trillions of dollars, researchers say.

"Coastal California is already experiencing the early impacts of a rising sea level, including more extensive coastal flooding during storms, periodic tidal flooding and increased coastal erosion," the report notes. It adds that "if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, key glaciological processes could cross thresholds that lead to rapidly accelerating and effectively irreversible ice loss," leading to even faster-rising sea levels. 

(MORE: Study Reveals Stunning Acceleration of Sea Level Rise)

“The prospect of losing so many our beaches in Southern California to sea level rise is frankly unacceptable," said John Ainsworth, executive direct of California Coastal Commission. "The beaches are our public parks and economic heart and soul of our coastal communities. We must do everything we can to ensure that as much of the iconic California coast is preserved for future generations.”

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