News Article | May 24, 2017
A massive landslide that went into the Pacific Ocean is the latest natural disaster to hit a California community that relies heavily on an iconic coastal highway and tourism to survive, and it adds to a record $1 billion in highway damage from one of the state's wettest winters in decades. The weekend slide in Big Sur buried a portion of Highway 1 under a 40-foot layer of rock and dirt and changed the coastline below to include what now looks like a rounded skirt hem, Susana Cruz, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Transportation, said Tuesday. More than 1 million tons of rock and dirt tumbled down a saturated slope in an area called Mud Creek. The slide is covering up about a one-quarter-of-a-mile (0.40-kilometer) stretch of Highway 1, and authorities have no estimate on when it might re-open. The area remains unstable. "We haven't been able to go up there and assess. It's still moving," Cruz said. "We have geologists and engineers who are going to check it out this week to see how do we pick up the pieces." It's the largest mudslide she knows of in the state's history, she said. "It's one of a kind," Cruz said. One of California's rainiest and snowiest winters on record has broken a five-year drought, but also caused flooding and landslides in much of the state and sped up coastal erosion. "This type of thing may become more frequent, but Big Sur has its own unique geology," said Dan Carl, a district director for the California Coastal Commission whose area includes Big Sur. "A lot of Big Sur is moving; you just don't see it." Even before the weekend slide, storms across California have caused just over $1 billion in highway damage to more than 400 sites during the fiscal year that ends in June, Mark Dinger, also a spokesman for the state transportation agency, said Tuesday. That compares with $660 million last year, he said. Big Sur is one of the state's biggest tourist draws in a normal year, attracting visitors to serene groves of redwoods, beaches and the dramatic ocean scenery along narrow, winding Highway 1. This winter has been particularly rough for Big Sur, state transportation spokesman Colin Jones said. Repeated landslides and floods have taken out bridges and highways, closed campgrounds, and forced some resorts to shut down temporarily or use helicopters to fly in guests and supplies. Watch news, TV and more Yahoo View, available on iOS and Android. Even before the weekend damage, the state had closed the Highway 1 along Mud Creek to repair buckled pavement and remove debris after an earlier slide. Authorities removed work crews from the area last week after realizing that saturated soil in that area was increasingly unstable, Jones said. Road crews also have stopped work at another damaged stretch of Highway 1 in the area, for the same reason. Last year, a wildfire burned for nearly three months in the Los Padres National Forest and on private land, sparked by an illegal campfire. Thousands of visitors were shut out from signature state parks and the businesses that cater to those tourists. Kirk Gafill, president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce and owner of the historic Nepenthe Restaurant, said the slide may prove a blessing, stabilizing land that Caltrans was working to shore up. On the other hand, he acknowledges his theory may be wishful thinking. "There's no question if you live and own a business in Big Sur, you live in a very dramatic landscape and we know historically, whether it's fire or a mudslide or a landslide from one year to the next it's not very predictable," said Gafill, whose restaurant is serving two to three dozen local diners a day rather than the 600 to 1,000 typical for this time of year. Gafill said repairing damage from the this landslide is not as critical for business as replacing Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, a span on Highway 1 that had to be demolished earlier this year after it was badly damaged by storms in in January and February. The new bridge is scheduled to open in September. Kurt Mayer, who owns Big Sur Tap House, was also taking news of the slide in stride. He said Tuesday he wouldn't trade in his work location for somewhere safer. "We're all going to make it, I'm pretty sure," he said. "Big Sur can scare some people, and those people usually come and go pretty quickly. And those who can hang, they're still there and they'll continue to be there."
News Article | May 25, 2017
'Mother Of All Landslides' In Big Sur Buries Section Of California's Highway 1 Skirting California's coastline, Highway 1 offers a popular and dramatic drive through the Big Sur region. On a normal day, a drive along the winding two-lane road gets one's heart pumping with fears of plunging down the hillside. But a weekend landslide has reshaped the coastline and closed part of the route, as a third of a mile of highway is now covered with dirt and rocks at an area called Mud Creek. As you can see in the before-and-after graphic below, where the coast used to form roughly a straight line, it's now a rocky bulge into the Pacific. The slide shut down a 12-mile section of the highway south of Monterey, from Ragged Point to Gorda, Calif., The New York Times reports. The executive director of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, Stan Russell, told the newspaper that while residents are used to erosion strewing rubble across the road, "This one, people are referring to as the mother of all landslides." After a five-year drought, California finally got a rainy and snowy winter, but that precipitation has caused flooding, landslides and coastal erosion, the AP notes. Susana Cruz, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Transportation, told the AP on Tuesday that the landslide was the largest in the state's history that she knew of, calling it "one of a kind." Authorities say they don't know when the road will reopen. Landslides like this one may become more frequent. Dan Carl, a district director for the California Coastal Commission, told the AP, "A lot of Big Sur is moving; you just don't see it." While this slide is unusually massive, it's one among many that have made for a very expensive winter. In the fiscal year ending in June, Caltrans said that storms across the state have caused more than $1 billion in highway damage, the AP reports. No one was hurt in the slide, according to the Times. The state had already closed the highway at Mud Creek after an earlier slide there left debris and buckled pavement. Crews that were working on repairs left the area last week after deciding the ground was too unstable, the AP reports. The barricaded section of Highway 1 will no doubt have repercussions for the area's tourism industry. That beautiful, wind-in-your hair drive between Big Sur and Gorda, which Mapquest says usually takes a cool 48 minutes, now takes four hours, according to The Washington Post, owing to the now inevitable detour inland. Landslides are so common in Big Sur that they get names. This weekend's tumble has been christened Arleen's Slide, after a local highway worker who was "standing by the side of the road when part of the hillside fell away," according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune. In the ongoing battle between Mother Nature and Highway 1, nature has decisively won this round. But some local residents are hopeful the big slide will stabilize the terrain. Kirk Gafill, a restaurant owner who leads the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, told the Monterey Herald that "[o]ne big slide took out all those smaller slides." With all the excess material out of the way, he says, now maybe "stability for that area may be restored."
News Article | April 18, 2017
Southern California’s beaches are an essential part of the state’s identity. The sandy, blond shorelines are like Hollywood or the towering redwoods—iconic. They are also an important piece of California’s more than $40-billion annual coastal and ocean economy. But scientists have bad news: Without human intervention, many of the region’s beautiful beaches may disappear by 2100 as sea levels rise. If the Golden State wants to save its golden shores, it will have to add sand to them—and lots of it. This troubling conclusion comes from a project to understand how climate change might affect the SoCal coast. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the U.S. Geological Survey built a forecasting model for the region’s shoreline and published their results in a recent paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface. The team examined 500 kilometers of SoCal coast, extending from the Mexican border to Point Conception, just north of Santa Barbara—home to 18 million residents as well as extensive infrastructure. “It’s the most urbanized part of the west coast, so it was an optimal place to assess,” says study co-author Patrick Barnard, a coastal geologist with USGS. The region’s beaches differ significantly, ranging from the wide Baywatch-esque shores in the Los Angeles area to narrow strips of sand in places like Santa Barbara. And they’re backstopped by a wide variety of features—estuaries, cliffs, river mouths, public and private infrastructure and more. Barnard and his team predicted how SoCal’s shores would evolve from 2010 through 2100 by modeling the factors that influence beaches—estimates for sea level rise as well as wave and storm behavior and predicted climate change patterns if the world eventually stabilizes its greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, then starts reducing them. The researchers chose their range of sea level–rise projections based on what is most likely to happen to the west coast, according to dozens of regional and global studies. They also took 15 years of historic data on how southern California’s beaches had changed and used that information to tune the model for the individual transects of beach, each 100 meters long. “That gave us confidence to project how the beaches will behave in the future,” Barnard explains, because it allowed the model to account for variations in features like sand-grain size and beach slope among the different beaches, along with dynamics such as sediment supply from rivers, dredging and past human additions of sand. The model revealed a dramatic picture: Without drastic intervention a huge portion of the sandy shores will likely vanish soon. “Roughly a third to two thirds of the beaches will effectively disappear by the end of the century,” with 0.93 to 2.0 meters of sea level–rise, Barnard says. Although wave conditions influence beach erosion in the short term, sea level rise becomes the dominant eroding force in the long term. This is a huge problem not only because beaches support shoreline life and attract tourists but also because they protect coastal communities from flooding and storms. “Beaches are the first line of defense because they absorb the energy from storms,” he explains. Climate change is not the only human impact here. If people had not built heavily along the shoreline, the beaches would just naturally migrate inland as the ocean rises. Bernard notes people have put the beaches under serious pressure because “we’re probably not going to let the beach move past a certain point.” In those many cases, he says, “we’ll have to add sand.” California has added sand to its beaches for decades—for instance, about 1.3 million cubic yards of sand is placed every five to seven years at Surfside–Sunset in Orange County. Since 2000 San Diego has twice pumped about 1.5 million to two million cubic yards of sand from offshore onto beaches throughout the county, and it has performed a number of smaller replenishments during that time as well. These “nourishment” projects, as they are called, usually average out to about $8 to $10 per cubic yard of sand, says Lesley Ewing, a senior coastal engineer with the California Coastal Commission. The problem is, Barnard and his team had already assumed that recent rates of sand addition would continue. Far more beyond that amount will be needed to keep SoCal’s beaches from disappearing. The researchers do not know exactly how much sand will be required, but they are working with the commission to determine the amount. “My sense is that it’s an order of magnitude larger—you might need 10 times the amount of sand than what’s been placed before to maintain beaches,” Barnard says. “It’s going to take a much larger effort.” He estimates billions more dollars will be necessary. The state will have to pump the sand from offshore or truck it from inland sources like riverbeds and quarries. Both options are expensive and, ironically, can harm the surrounding ecosystem. Even then some beaches will succumb to sea level rise. “It might not be reasonable to try to keep every beach that exists now, because we don’t have enough sand to do that into perpetuity,” Ewing says. “We’re still going to have some of those nice California beaches but some of the smaller ones will be lost.” According to the study, many popular beaches are at risk in places such as San Diego, Malibu and much of Santa Barbara. Communities may decide to surrender some of their coastline development in favor of saving the beaches and letting them migrate inland. Ewing thinks this type of managed retreat will become more common as people start to understand the onerous cost of relentless nourishment. Either way, Barnard says, “we’re going to have to do massive interventions if we want to maintain the safety and vitality of these coastal communities.”
News Article | March 29, 2017
A new study has forecasted that a majority of beaches and cliffs in Southern California would be eroded by the end of the century, pointing to rising sea levels as the likely reason. With “limited human intervention” and in sea level rise of 0.93 to 2 meters, almost 31 percent to 67 percent of these beaches could become “completely eroded” by 2100, warned researchers. The state’s iconic shoreline spans from Santa Barbara to San Diego. The findings prove important given the natural and economic roles of such beaches. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geologist and study author Patrick Barnard said that these SoCal beaches are the first line of defense against coastal storm impacts. If humans do not intervene more strongly to counteract erosion, flooding will become more severe and common in many places. “This study indicates that we will have to perform massive and costly interventions to preserve these beaches in the future under the erosive pressures of anticipated sea level rise, or risk losing many of the economic and protective benefits beaches provide,” he said in a statement. For John Ainsworth, California Coastal Commission’s executive director, the prospect of losing the beaches is “frankly unacceptable” given their role as public parks and “economic heart and soul” of their coastal communities. The 310-mile stretch of Southern California is home to almost 20 million people and includes some of the most sought-after real estate in the whole country, from Los Angeles’ low-lying Westside communities to Orange County’s suburban neighborhoods. State officials estimated that economic returns from coast-related activities reach $40 billion every year. Losing the beaches is feared to impact not just tourism, but also expose homes and infrastructure to various forms of damage. The findings also offer a peek into the expected future rise in sea levels. The prospect of losing the beaches is not a matter of “if” the seas are rising — that is already seen to be happening, so it’s now a matter of “how much.” According to earlier conservative estimates by a UN panel, the oceans would rise by a meter by the end of the 21st century, while newer data showed that the rapid melting of Antarctic ice may actually double the rate. Recently, Arctic sea ice levels plummeted to a record low of 5.57 million square miles. Rising sea levels is already an issue in many coastal communities. Sections of the Gulf Coast as well as Atlantic seaboard, for instance, have risen in greater rates than along parts of the West Coast, the Union of Concerned Scientists said. The problem becomes more pronounced as a lot of regional coasts have become urbanized, when the environment in these areas are “some of the most dynamic settings” and can experience significant changes, Barnard added. In a new report, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned that current climate is bringing the planet into “truly uncharted territory,” highlighted exceptional ocean heat and sea level rises coupled with very low sea ice. It cited significant flooding that recently hit parts of the world, including extreme flooding in Louisiana and parts of southern U.S. region last August, with losses estimated at $10 billion. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | April 20, 2017
A Boston-based water development company is paying former Sen. Barbara Boxer to push for approval of a proposed seawater desalination plant that has been mired for years in environmental controversy. Boxer, a Democrat, will lobby the California Coastal Commission on behalf of Poseidon Water’s private project, which would sell drinking water supplies to Orange County agencies. “I’m very happy to be on this team,” said Boxer, who earned a reputation as a strong environmentalist during her more than two decades representing California in the U.S. Senate. “Desalination is something I have worked for for a very long time.” Poseidon is fighting with the Coastal Commission staff over the type of seawater intake the $1-billion plant would use. The company wants to screen an existing power plant intake pipe to pull 106 million gallons a day from the Pacific Ocean and purify it through energy-intensive reverse-osmosis filtration. The Coastal Commission staff, arguing that that method would kill too many fish eggs and larvae, has recommended that Poseidon instead build an offshore intake to draw water from beneath the ocean floor. The company says that would drive up costs so much that it would kill the project. “I’m very worried that if we sit back and we don’t use this tool — desal — what it’s going to mean is big dams that destroy our rivers and our fisheries, and pulling more water from the [Sacramento-San Joaquin] Delta,” Boxer said in an interview. Poseidon has over the years spent more than $1.6 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in its drive to build the country’s two largest ocean desalters on the California coast. One plant started operation in San Diego County in 2015. The Huntington Beach project still needs approval from several state agencies, including the Coastal Commission. “It’s disappointing that Barbara Boxer has decided to become a paid lobbyist on this project,” said Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network, an environmental group. “But that doesn’t change the facts. It’s still a bad project.”
News Article | March 18, 2016
After years of pressure, SeaWorld made a surprise announcement: It no longer breeds killer whales in captivity and will soon stop making them leap from their pools or splash audiences on command. Surrendering Thursday to a profound shift in how people feel about using animals for entertainment, the SeaWorld theme parks have joined a growing list of industries dropping live animal tricks. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is retiring all of its touring elephants in May. Once-popular animal shows in Las Vegas have virtually disappeared. "Society's attitude toward these very, very large, majestic animals under human care has shifted for a variety of reasons, whether it's a film, legislation, people's comments on the Internet," SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby said. "It wasn't worth fighting that. We needed to move where society was moving." SeaWorld's 29 killer whales will remain in captivity, but in "new, inspiring natural orca encounters," according to the company. SeaWorld's orcas range in age from 1 to 51 years old, so some could remain on display for decades. Attendance at SeaWorld's parks declined after the 2013 release of "Blackfish," a highly critical documentary. Some top musical acts dropped out of SeaWorld-sponsored concerts at the urging of animal rights activists, who kept up a visible presence demonstrating outside the parks' gates. Still, the decision shocked advocates who have spent decades campaigning against keeping marine mammals captive, and it represents a sharp U-turn from SeaWorld's previous reaction to the documentary. In August 2014, SeaWorld announced major new investments in the orca program, including new, larger tanks, first in San Diego and then at its parks in Orlando and San Antonio, Texas. But the California Coastal Commision didn't approve the $100 million expansion until last October, and when it did, it banned orca breeding as part of the decision. SeaWorld sued, arguing that the commission overstepped its authority, but said it would end its San Diego orca shows by 2017. Meanwhile, SeaWorld brought in a new leader with more experience in regional theme parks than zoos and aquariums, which have been fending off such protests for decades. Manby was hired as SeaWorld CEO last March 19 after running Dollywood and other musically-themed parks. He said Thursday that he brought a "fresh perspective" to the killer whale quandary, and soon realized that "society is shifting here." Orcas have been a centerpiece of the SeaWorld parks since shows at the Shamu stadium in San Diego became the main draw in the 1970s. But criticism has steadily increased in the decades since and then became sharper after an orca named Tilikum battered and drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau after a "Dine with Shamu" show in Orlando in 2010. Her death was highlighted in "Blackfish," and it wasn't the first for Tilikum. The whale also killed an animal trainer and a trespasser in the 1990s. "Blackfish" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite said she applauds SeaWorld's decision, "but mostly I applaud the public for recalibrating how they feel ethically about orcas in captivity." The new orca shows will begin next year at the San Diego park, before expanding to its San Antonio park and then to Orlando in 2019, Manby said. What about shows involving dolphins and other marine mammals? "Stay tuned on that," Manby said. "A lot of people don't understand how hard it is internally to make these kinds of decisions. We need to execute this well. We need to make sure we have the organization in the same direction. Then we will apply those learnings elsewhere." SeaWorld has not only discontinued breeding orcas through artificial insemination; it also feeds the whales birth control medication, Manby said. One of SeaWorld's most prolific breeders has been Tilikum. The 35-year-old whale has sired 14 calves during his 23 years in Orlando, but he's gravely ill now and not expected to live much longer. "So you're saying you're ending your breeding program? Well, guess what? Your breeding program is ending anyhow. I think it's greenwashing," said Ric O'Barry, who directs the DolphinProject.net advocacy group. In 2012, SeaWorld sent workers to infiltrate the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has been particularly critical. Manby confirmed the effort last month. He said the undercover workers were sent to protect the safety of SeaWorld employees and customers, but he vowed to end the practice. Now, SeaWorld hopes to turn a less strident foe, the Humane Society, into a collaborator, helping to educate guests about animal welfare and conservation through interpretive programs and expanded advocacy for wild whales, seals and other marine creatures. Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle, who called SeaWorld's about-face a "monumental announcement," said his organization is by no means naive about SeaWorld, but sees a chance to make progress for animal rights." "We didn't want to be endlessly mired in conflict," Pacelle said. PETA wasn't satisfied, insisting Thursday that SeaWorld should give up its orcas altogether. "SeaWorld must open its tanks to the oceans to allow the orcas it now holds captive to have some semblance of a life outside these prison tanks," PETA spokeswoman Colleen O'Brien said in a statement. Manby countered that no captive dolphin or orca has been successfully released into the wild. SeaWorld is abandoning plans to expand its orca tanks now that the breeding program has ended, the company said. A spokeswoman for the California Coastal Commission praised this, and suggested that SeaWorld drop its lawsuit as well. Manby said SeaWorld's three marine parks may move closer to the balance of rides, shows and animals found at the company's Busch Gardens parks. They need a mixture of experiences to keep a family at the park all day, he said. "I do think you have to have more rides," Manby said. "Some of these messages about animal welfare ... You can't hit them with that all day because sometimes it's a heavy message. You have to balance it."
News Article | March 7, 2016
"It was like a sequel to a bad movie. One month after I watched the California Coastal Commission whack the executive whose career was devoted to preserving and assuring equal access to the state's greatest treasure, I went to Diamond Bar on Friday to watch another massacre. This time the target was a man with more than three decades of experience fighting smog and improving public health in a region with some of the dirtiest air in the nation. The South Coast Air Quality Management District ignored pleas from environmentalists and public health experts and told Barry Wallerstein to get lost."
News Article | January 25, 2016
LONG BEACH, CA (AP) — Forget about selfies. In California, residents are using smartphones and drones to document the coastline's changing face. Starting this month, The Nature Conservancy is asking tech junkies to capture the flooding and coastal erosion that come with El Nino, a weather pattern that's bringing California its wettest winter in years — and all in the name of science. The idea is that crowd-sourced, geotagged images of storm surges and flooded beaches will give scientists a brief window into what the future holds as sea levels rise from global warming, a sort of a crystal ball for climate change. Images from the latest drones, which can produce high-resolution 3-D maps, will be particularly useful and will help scientists determine if predictive models about coastal flooding are accurate, said Matt Merrifield, the organization's chief technology officer. "We use these projected models and they don't quite look right, but we're lacking any empirical evidence," he said. "This is essentially a way of 'ground truthing' those models." Experts on climate change agreed that El Nino-fueled storms offer a sneak peak of the future and said the project was a novel way to raise public awareness. Because of its crowd-sourced nature, however, they cautioned the experiment might not yield all the results organizers hoped for, although any additional information is useful. "It's not the answer, but it's a part of the answer," said Lesley Ewing, senior coastal engineer with the California Coastal Commission. "It's a piece of the puzzle." In California, nearly a half-million people, $100 billion in property and critical infrastructure such as schools, power plants and highways will be at risk of inundation during a major storm if sea level rises another 4.6 feet — a figure that could become a reality by 2100, according to a 2009 Pacific Institute study commissioned by three state agencies. Beaches that Californians take for granted will become much smaller or disappear altogether and El Nino-fueled storms will have a similar effect, if only temporarily, said William Patzert, a climatologist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "When you get big winter storm surge like they want to document, you tend to lose a lot of beach," he said. "In a way, it's like doing a documentary on the future. It'll show you what your beaches will look like in 100 years." What the mapping won't be able to predict is exactly which beaches will disappear and which bluffs will crumble — all things that will affect how flooding impacts coastal populations, said Ewing, the California Coastal Commission engineer. "We're not going to capture that change," she said. "We're going to capture where the water could go to with this current landscape and that's still a very important thing to understand because it gets at those hot spots." So far, project organizers aren't giving assignments to participants, although they may send out specific requests as the winter unfolds, said Merrifield. If users wind up mapping real-time flooding events along 10 or 15 percent of California's 840-mile-long coastline the project will be a success, he said. A realistic goal is a "curated selection" of 3D maps showing flooding up and down the coast at different dates and times. The Nature Conservancy has partnered with a San Francisco-area startup called DroneDeploy that will provide a free app to drone owners for consistency. The app will provide automated flight patterns at the touch of a screen while cloud-based technology will make managing so much data feasible, said Ian Smith, a business developer for the company. Trent Lukaczyk heard about the experiment from a posting in a Facebook group dedicated to drone enthusiasts. For the aerospace engineer, who has already used drones to map coral reefs in American Samoa, the volunteer work was appealing. "It's a really exciting application. It's not just something to take a selfie with," he said, before heading out to collect images of beach erosion after a storm in Pacifica, CA. Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
News Article | January 25, 2016
Forget about selfies. In California, residents are using smartphones and drones to document the coastline's changing face. Starting this month, The Nature Conservancy is asking tech junkies to capture the flooding and coastal erosion that come with El Nino, a weather pattern that's bringing California its wettest winter in years - and all in the name of science. The idea is that crowd-sourced, geotagged images of storm surges and flooded beaches will give scientists a brief window into what the future holds as sea levels rise from global warming, a sort of a crystal ball for climate change. Images from the latest drones, which can produce high-resolution 3D maps, will be particularly useful and will help scientists determine if predictive models about coastal flooding are accurate, said Matt Merrifield, the organization's chief technology officer. "We use these projected models and they don't quite look right, but we're lacking any empirical evidence," he said. "This is essentially a way of 'ground truthing' those models." Experts on climate change agreed that El Nino-fueled storms offer a sneak peak of the future and said the project was a novel way to raise public awareness. Because of its crowd-sourced nature, however, they cautioned the experiment might not yield all the results organizers hoped for, although any additional information is useful. "It's not the answer, but it's a part of the answer," said Lesley Ewing, senior coastal engineer with the California Coastal Commission. "It's a piece of the puzzle." In California, nearly a half-million people, $100 billion in property and critical infrastructure such as schools, power plants and highways will be at risk of inundation during a major storm if sea level rises another 4.6 feet - a figure that could become a reality by 2100, according to a 2009 Pacific Institute study commissioned by three state agencies. Beaches that Californians take for granted will become much smaller or disappear altogether and El Nino-fueled storms will have a similar effect, if only temporarily, said William Patzert, a climatologist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "When you get big winter storm surge like they want to document, you tend to lose a lot of beach," he said. "In a way, it's like doing a documentary on the future. It'll show you what your beaches will look like in 100 years." What the mapping won't be able to predict is exactly which beaches will disappear and which bluffs will crumble - all things that will affect how flooding impacts coastal populations, said Ewing, the California Coastal Commission engineer. "We're not going to capture that change," she said. "We're going to capture where the water could go to with this current landscape and that's still a very important thing to understand because it gets at those hot spots." So far, project organizers aren't giving assignments to participants, although they may send out specific requests as the winter unfolds, said Merrifield. If users wind up mapping real-time flooding events along 10 or 15 percent of California's 840-mile-long coastline the project will be a success, he said. A realistic goal is a "curated selection" of 3D maps showing flooding up and down the coast at different dates and times. The Nature Conservancy has partnered with a San Francisco-area startup called DroneDeploy that will provide a free app to drone owners for consistency. The app will provide automated flight patterns at the touch of a screen while cloud-based technology will make managing so much data feasible, said Ian Smith, a business developer for the company. Trent Lukaczyk heard about the experiment from a posting in a Facebook group dedicated to drone enthusiasts. For the aerospace engineer, who has already used drones to map coral reefs in American Samoa, the volunteer work was appealing. "It's a really exciting application. It's not just something to take a selfie with," he said, before heading out to collect images of beach erosion after a storm in Pacifica, California.
News Article | February 15, 2017
El Niño may not have brought much rain to Southern California, but it did take its toll on the Golden State’s beaches. A new study of the waves, water levels and coastal changes at 29 beaches across California, Oregon and Washington has found that the 2015-16 El Niño triggered unprecedented erosion across much of the West Coast. The results, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, document a level of degradation from which these natural systems may not be able to recover. That could have far-reaching environmental and economic impacts, experts said. The analysis also opens a window into how the coast is likely to hold up as climate change and its associated sea-level rise worsen. “This is likely the kind of El Niño we may experience more in the future,” said lead author Patrick Barnard, a coastal geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Santa Cruz. El Niño is a multiyear weather pattern that typically brings big storms to the West Coast. Drought-parched Southern California had awaited the expected rains last winter with bated breath, hoping it would help revive California’s wilting landscape. Northern California did get a good soaking — but down south, the deluge never materialized, leaving many Angelenos wondering whether El Niño really came to the region at all. But the phenomenon did hit Southern California — along with the rest of the West Coast — hard. That’s because the weather pattern isn’t just about rain. Its strength also can be measured by the power of the waves pounding the coastline. Barnard knew he wasn’t the only one watching the coastlines; colleagues at half a dozen other institutions had been monitoring activity along the West Coast. They quickly realized that, wet or not, they could have a monster El Niño on their hands — and that it could take a major toll on beaches. Beaches go through a seasonal cycle: Powerful winter waves drag sand out to sea, while more gentle waves in the summer deposit much of that sand back onshore. During El Niño winters, the waves are extra-strong, removing even more sand — and causing more erosion — than usual. Teaming up, the scientists made surface maps using a remote-sensing laser technology called light detection and ranging, or LIDAR. They also drove all-terrain vehicles across beaches to perform GPS-based topographic surveys. (Barnard, not the biggest fan of dune buggies, said he took it slow.) That kind of analysis wasn’t possible during the last really big El Niño season in 1997-98, when GPS technology was just coming online, Barnard said. “There was a little bit of data collection back then,” he added, “but now it’s basically cheaper, it’s faster — it’s easier to collect these kinds of data.” The researchers found that the most extreme waves were about 50% larger than usual during the 2015-16 El Niño season. Consequently, the level of beach erosion was a whopping 76% higher than normal — and 27% higher than any other recorded winter. Barnard and his colleagues had expected this El Niño would be big. They just hadn’t thought it would be quite this big. “We saw the conditions in the Pacific, but I think we were definitely surprised at the scale of the event — especially in relation to the other two monster El Niños that have always been considered to be the big ones,” he said, referring to the 1982-83 and 1997-98 winter seasons. The problem with such extreme erosion is that there’s very little chance the summertime waves can deposit enough sand to make up the loss. That makes an El Niño like last year’s a potentially unrecoverable event for the natural system. Beaches can also be replenished with new sediment washing down rain-swollen rivers. But in Southern California, the combination of powerful waves and little rain created a worst-case scenario, Barnard said. This situation is one that’s been long in the making, said Robert Guza, a physical oceanographer at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who was not involved in the study. “Southern California, we love to build in river floodplains and then say, ‘Holy crap, it flooded,’” Guza said. “Then we dam the rivers for flood control and say, ‘Holy crap, the sand’s not getting to the beaches anymore.’” The damming of Southern California’s rivers has trapped roughly half of the sediment that would otherwise replenish the region’s beaches, he added — sediment that later costs money to remove. “Our beaches are sand-starved, partially because we’re starving them,” he added. The loss of such beach area has serious consequences for the plants and animals that rely on that habitat, said Lesley Ewing, a senior coastal engineer with the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco who was not involved in the research paper. “There are birds that nest on sandy beach areas; there are fish that lay their eggs on the beach, like grunion,” Ewing said. “So they’re really important for a number of parts of the food web.” There are also economic ramifications for property owners and cities near such coveted shorelines. Beaches bring in money from both locals and tourists — which is why millions of dollars are often spent to bring in sand to artificially replenish them, Guza said. “The beaches are really an incredibly valuable public resource,” Ewing said, pointing out that those cooling sea breezes may become increasingly valuable to state residents as inland areas heat up over the next several decades. Ewing said the study affirmed what she’d seen at beaches in Northern California, including severe erosion at Half Moon Bay and Pacifica State Beach. For Guza, the findings helped explain the significant erosion he’d seen at San Diego beaches. This El Niño may have been a big one, but it may become “the new normal,” Guza and Ewing said. During El Niño, the sea level temporarily rises by several inches along the coast. That’s a good proxy for the sea level rise that’s expected in the coming decades as rising temperatures melt polar ice reserves, Guza said. “The only real prediction I have is, it will get worse — a lot worse,” Guza said. “I just don’t know how fast.” Communities, he said, will have to decide whether to protect vulnerable beaches — perhaps by bringing in more sand, or building sea walls.