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Sea level rise could drastically erode California beaches by the end of the century

Waves roll up to and under homes perched over a sandy beach in Malibu, Calif. A new study predicts that with limited human intervention, 31 percent to 67 percent of Southern California beaches could completely erode back to coastal infrastructure or sea cliffs by the year 2100.
AP Photo/John Antczak
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AP
Waves roll up to and under homes perched over a sandy beach in Malibu, Calif. A new study predicts that with limited human intervention, 31 percent to 67 percent of Southern California beaches could completely erode back to coastal infrastructure or sea cliffs by the year 2100.

California's beaches are world famous. But new research indicates many could disappear by the century's end due to erosion from sea level rise.

"The shoreline, where the water meets the sand right now, is probably going to retreat landward about 30 meters or more for every meter of sea level rise you get," said Sean Vitousek, a research oceanographer at the U. S. Geological Survey and lead author of the report.

"When you get into three meters of sea level rise, you're talking almost 300-plus feet of erosion under those large scenarios — not to mention the flooding challenges that are also associated with sea level rise," Vitousek said during an interview with NPR's A Martinez for Morning Edition.

A Martínez interviews Kathleen Treseder at Sunset Beach in Orange County, California.
A Martínez / A Martínez
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A Martínez
A Martínez interviews Kathleen Treseder at Sunset Beach in Orange County, California.

Using nearly four decades of satellite images, models of predicted sea level rise and global wave patterns, the researchers estimate 24 to 75% of California's beaches "may become completely eroded" by 2100.

So how much sea level rise might the state get in the coming decades?

The California Ocean Protection Council, a cabinet-level state agency, anticipatessea levels in California may rise anywhere from two to seven feet, between now and 2100. Some researchers warn of up to 10 feet in worst case scenarios.

There are two major factors that contribute to sea level rise, said Vitousek. One is ocean warming; that is the thermal expansion of salt water caused by a heating atmosphere, which is caused by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The other factor is the melting of land ice.

The entrance to Sunset Beach, which is located in the seaside city of Huntington Beach.
A Martínez / A Martínez
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A Martínez
The entrance to Sunset Beach, which is located in the seaside city of Huntington Beach.

"The ice in Greenland holds about seven meters of sea level and the ice in Antarctica holds about 70 meters of sea level. So the big uncertainty is really understanding what the global temperature is going to be like and how much of that ice melts," Vitousek said.

He emphasizes that the study is a prediction, not a forecast. Nature is more complicated than data or computer models.

The findings will help state and local officials plan for the future and look for ways to protect coastal communities, roads and railroad tracks. For decades, California has depended on things like sea walls and concrete barriers to preserve its beaches and coastal infrastructure.

Vitousek says the most successful long-term solutions will likely be ones that work with nature.

Kathleen Treseder thinks a lot about potential solutions for problems like erosion. She studies and teachesclimate change at the University of California, Irvine. She says many of the expensive homes along Orange County's coastline might withstand waves lapping at their porches, but they could be taken out by a storm surge.

Some short-term solutions, such as trucking in more sand, can be expensive. A medium-term solution that Treseder supports is building barrier islands off the coast, to weaken and slow incoming waves. They would also provide habitat for wildlife and recreation opportunities but require maintenance. She says the best long-term solution is to reverse climate change.

"The ocean is going to do what the ocean is going to do, and we can stop it to a certain extent," Treseder says. "But we're nowhere near as powerful as the ocean, so we're kind of at its mercy."

A row of homes on an overcast day at Sunset Beach in Orange County. According to Sean Vitousek, Sunset Beach is one of the beaches in Southern California that is most feeling the effects of coastal erosion.
A Martínez / A Martínez
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A Martínez
A row of homes on an overcast day at Sunset Beach in Orange County. According to Sean Vitousek, Sunset Beach is one of the beaches in Southern California that is most feeling the effects of coastal erosion.

Treseder is also a council member in Irvine, a city a few miles inland from the Orange County coast, that's also dealing with the effects of sea level rise. The city has created a marsh to remove pollutants from street runoff that drains into the San Diego Creek before making its way to the ocean.

"As sea levels rise, it's actually going to inundate that marsh community, and so it won't be able to work the way it's supposed to. So, that means that these pollutants would go right into the ocean," she said.

Despite the dire predictions about disappearing beaches and coastal communities at risk, Treseder is optimistic.

"Humans changed the atmosphere one way, we can change it back — for sure, she said. "It's just the question of the will of the people."

Claudia Peschiutta edited the digital version of this story. contributed to this story

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

Corrected: August 26, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of the story and photo caption incorrectly cited the report's prediction of California coastal erosion as 31 to 67% by the year 2100. In fact, it is 24 to 75%.
Alice Woelfle
Alice Woelfle is an editor on Morning Edition. She began her journalism career at Member station KZYX in Mendocino County, California. She has also worked at KQED and KALW in San Francisco. Prior to that she worked as a rancher, educator and musician. Woelfle is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.