Coastal Preservation, Shoreline Armoring, Updates, Climate Change
June 08 2016

Addressing Sea Level Rise on the California Coast

by Joanna Malaczynski & Pete Stauffer

Sea levels are rising across the globe and in California. New estimates show that sea level rise is expected to hit the Golden State hard, with levels rising by an average of six inches, and possibly up to one foot by 2030 alone. 

Our knee-jerk response to rising sea levels is to armor the coastline with sea walls, rock piles, and other obstacles. We see this done by individual coastal homeowners who build structures to keep the water away from their properties. But it also occurs on an institutional level, with cities and other government agencies armoring longer stretches of beach at a time.

Unfortunately, the actual outcome of beach armoring is the exact opposite of what we intend: it causes more coastal erosion. This is because the walls we build create tremendous wave energy along our coastlines. When waves hit an obstacle such as a sea wall or rock pile, they crash hard. The energy created in that process beats upon the sand immediately in front of and sometimes under the man-made obstruction. Sand along the beach is quickly eroded as a result. Beach armoring also leads to erosion in beaches down-drift from beach-armored areas, as tremendous amounts of wave energy travel down and away from seawalls.  

Beach armoring also disrupts the coastal ecosystem for the creatures that live in and around the sand, leading to less marine life and shore birds. The increased wave energy creates conditions inhospitable to certain critters, disrupting the food chain. It also separates the tidal areas from higher coastal habitat, fragmenting ecosystems.

The best strategy for preserving our coastlines in the face of climate change is to remove seawalls and move development further away from the beach.  Beaches are natural buffers from us and rising sea levels— if left to their own devices, they will adjust to changing climate conditions and continue to protect our coasts. 

In a natural ecosystem, storms and waves move sand around our coastlines. The resulting beaches, dunes and wetlands serve to protect everything further inland from wave inundation by gently dissipating waves as they hit the coast. It is true that we can expect that our beaches will move further inland with rising sea levels.   

As a result, so should we. In order to protect our beaches and coastal communities, California needs to take bold actions to protect our shorelines from new seawalls and other types of shoreline armoring. The Surfrider Foundation has adopted a Beach Preservation Policy that prioritizes the protection of natural shorelines. This includes advocating for new development to be appropriately set back from the shore, as well as long-term solutions such as landward retreat of structures from dynamic shorelines.

In California, the Surfrider Foundation is actively responding to the threat of sea level rise off our coast. At the state level, we continue to advocate for strong laws and policies that will protect the coast from ill-conceived development. At the local level, we are supporting community efforts to update Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) to plan for rising sea levels. Finally, our staff and chapter leaders regularly attend California Coastal Commission meeting to provide comments on coastal development proposals.

Stanford University recently published an excellent paper discussing the issue of coastal armoring on the California coast. The Surfrider Foundation strongly supports the paper’s recommendations to advance climate change adaptation strategies that will protect our state's magnificent coastline. 

To learn more about Surfrider's efforts to protect the California coast, please visit the following links:

Keep California's Coast Open click here

ActCoastal Project click here

California Surfrider click here