If we needed a reminder about the instability of the California coastline and the potential for danger, we needed only to look south on Friday. A cliff collapsed in the San Diego County town of Encinitas, killing three people in the rubble that fell onto the beach below.
It’s an increasingly common and frightening occurrence.
Earlier this year, two women and their dog were briefly buried in a similar collapse at Fort Funston in San Francisco. Two years ago, a woman standing too close to the edge of the bluffs in Santa Cruz County fell when the ground beneath her gave way. She died on the way to the hospital. Similar reports can be found up and down the California coast and there will be more of them as erosion becomes an increasing problem amid climate change and sea level rise.
A recent U.S. Geological Survey report suggests sea cliffs, like the ones that feature in most of the Instagram photos of the Coastside, will recede at an alarming rate. In Southern California, the report says the cliffs will fall away by 19 to 41 meters by the year 2100. When coupled with rising ocean waters, the erosion in Southern California is a full-blown crisis. A new government computer model known as “Coastal Storm Modeling System — Coastal One-line Assimilated Simulation Tool” predicts that as much as two-thirds of the region’s beaches may simply disappear by the year 2100 amid a sea level rise of 1 to 2 meters.
Forty meters may not seem devastating in relation to the open space you see here, but consider the Coastal Trail, Mirada Road and the crowds of tourists who daily peer over the very edge of our bluffs just to see what is below.
Other than talking of a “planned retreat” from the water and bluffs, local government has a hard time getting its head around this crisis. Like so many of our regional problems — traffic, homelessness, housing — each government unit feels somewhat powerless on its own. And with no accountability, the real work is negligible.
Meanwhile, California crumbles.
“Beaches are perhaps the most iconic feature of California, and the potential for losing this identity is real,” said Sean Vitousek, professor of civil and materials engineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the author of one USGS study called, “Disappearing Beaches: Modeling Shoreline Change in Southern California.”
The California coast we all inherited is shifting underneath our feet. Keep that in mind the next time you take a walk on local blufftops.