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UC Santa Cruz professor says rising sea levels are a growing threat to coastal California

Construction at Shell Beach after the January 9 storm cracked a bluff.
Photo by Amanda Wernik
Construction at Shell Beach after the January 9 storm cracked a bluff.

Sea level rise is a growing problem for coastal communities across California, including the Central Coast. According to a UC Santa Cruz professor, the root of the problem is ocean warming and extreme weather events caused by climate change.

Dr. Gary Griggs is a professor of Earth Sciences at UC Santa Cruz specializing in oceanography and coastal geology. He said recent studies show sea levels in California could potentially rise 2 inches per year.

As temperatures rise, ice melts and water expands, the average height of the world’s oceans is increasing over time.

“So sea levels are rising because the planet is getting warmer,” Griggs said.

Driggs said coastal communities in California are already feeling the immediate consequences in the form of extreme weather events- like the many atmospheric river storms that have hit the state this year.

“We experienced that along the coast with very high tides and very large waves and strong onshore winds happening at the same time, and that created a lot of damage and losses along the coast particularly here in the Central Coast,” Griggs said.

Griggs said as sea levels continue to rise, beaches will shrink, and damage from extreme weather events will move further inland.

California communities, including the City of Pismo Beach, have built sea walls to protect coastal areas, but he says this is only a temporary solution.

High water levels in Santa Barbara on Friday, January 6.
City of Santa Barbara
High water levels in Santa Barbara on Friday, January 6.

“Seawalls are sort of expensive, large band-aids,” Griggs said. “They're gonna last for a while, maybe 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, and then at some point we just can't build the wall any higher.”

Griggs said the most important way to slow sea level rise is to address its root cause: global warming. He said the way to do that is to transition to carbon-free energy.

“Expanding our use of fossil fuels and putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere- their rate will accelerate, but the more we can slow that down the more we can slow sea level rise down,” Griggs said.

More sea level rise may be inevitable, but Griggs said he’s still optimistic that climate change can be slowed. He cites the progress made by Central Coast communities in replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.

“Morro Bay is one place with renewables, with offshore wind turbines and more solar farms,” Griggs said.

For more information on rising sea levels in California, visit the California Coastal commission website at coastal.ca.gov.

KCBX Reporter Amanda Wernik graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a BS in Journalism. Amanda is currently a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism, completing a data fellowship that will result in a news feature series to air on KCBX in the winter of 2024.
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