A rising tide: global climate change threatens South Bay beaches
In the not very distant future, the Beach Cities may no longer have beaches.
Climatologists are projecting that in coming decades, the beaches of the South Bay and the first block of homes and development could be inundated by storm surges hugely intensified by increases in sea level.
Such scenarios are part of global climate changes that last month reached a watershed moment when scientists reported that a swath of the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun an irreversible melting which will raise global sea level by at least 2 feet by 2050, and 10 feet or more in coming centuries.
Researchers at UCLA and USC are creating climate models that will help make sense of how climate change will affect the Los Angeles region and its coastal communities on a local level. Two South Bay cities are already launching groundbreaking initiatives that, if fully actualized, will set the bar for municipal policy addressing climate change in cities around the world.
In Manhattan Beach, city officials, residents, and environmental advocates have pioneered a campaign, called MB2025, to move the city from fossil fuel to 100 percent renewable power sources by the year 2025. Hermosa Beach is developing plans to achieve carbon neutrality, or net zero carbon emissions, by offsetting the amount of carbon emitted locally by producing equivalent amounts of energy from non-polluting sources such as solar power.
Alex Hall, one of the world’s leading scientists on climate modeling, and his team at UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ATMOS) have created models for the Los Angeles region that provide climate projections at the neighborhood scale. While pre-existing models provide projections for cities as a whole, Hall’s models are precise enough to show changes at the scale of two square kilometers. The data is intended to spur local action.
“Understanding how climate change is going to affect us in Los Angeles not only motivates us to adapt to those changes but also motivates us to lower our carbon emissions,” said Katharine Reich, a spokesperson for Hall.
According to this research, inland communities such as downtown Los Angeles and the Valley will experience more extreme heat spells. Coastal communities will face rising seas and accompanying storm surges, which pose threats to the South Bay’s beach-centric livelihood.
“If more cities understood the impacts and took action to mitigate their carbon emissions that would actually add up to some significant mitigation,” Reich added. “What cities can do can actually make a difference.”
Neil Berg, a researcher at ATMOS, led the group’s study on precipitation modeling.
“It’s now not a scientific debate on the role of greenhouse gases and the climate,” Berg said. “They are causing warming of the climate. It’s now up to society to take that information and do something with it. All indications suggest that the longer we wait the less we’re able to mitigate this warming and thus potential effects on temperature, precipitation, runoff, and sea level rise. There really should be no hesitation, in my mind, with such definitive science.”
Beach sands absorb the impacts of waves and high tides, acting as a natural cushion to mitigate damage from storm surges. But the wide, sandy beaches of Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach are, in fact, not natural. They owe their breadth to beach nourishment programs that began throughout California in the 1920s. Before then, these shorelines were thin, dry, and incapable of accommodating today’s demands for access and recreation.
Climate change threatens these same beaches.
“Sea level is rising,” said Susanne Moser, a Santa Cruz-based climate scientist who is currently working with the City of Hermosa Beach to update its general plan to accommodate sea level rise projections. “It means you will get more erosion, and if you don’t have that beach buffer anymore, you’re at increasing risk for a number of other impacts like flooding or ultimately permanent inundation.”
During storm surges, beachfront homes and buildings can be flooded and severely damaged, and salt water can seep into groundwater and basements, contaminating freshwater sources and corroding the foundations of buildings. The El Niño climate phenomenon — which has a 90 percent chance of striking this year, according to climatologists — brings torrential rains to Southern California, further exacerbating storm surges. El Niño periods can last from nine months to two years, and storms, already potentially destructive, will be amplified by climate change.
“I remember [during the El Niño storms of] ‘82 and ‘83, I had to sandbag the door ‘cause [water] was getting in the kitchen,” said Craig Cadwallader, chair of the South Bay chapter of the Surfrider Foundation who lived on the Strand in Hermosa Beach for more than 20 years. “The storms were bad. It basically eroded half the beach away, and in 1998 we had a really severe storm that did $24 million dollars worth of damage here in King Harbor because the King Harbor breakwater is five feet lower than it should be.”
Scenarios like these will not be uncommon in coming decades, experts say. But the beaches of the Beach Cities already have an inherent structural facet that could be the best protection against rising seas – themselves.
The most effective way to allay threats posed by flooding and storm surges is to ensure that the beaches stay nourished, said Moser. Sand naturally erodes from the shoreline and flows south and goes down the Redondo Beach canyon, located immediately offshore outside King Harbor, where it cannot be recovered. Cities to the north of and within the South Bay coastal communities, Moser said, should work together and “pay into one pot” to maintain the replenishment of sand and sediment in these threatened areas.
Moser has contributed to two reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-led authority on climate change and co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
“What is Hermosa Beach without its beach?” said Moser. “It’s entire culture, economy, and appeal is no longer there, and the beach is the most effective protection against flooding.”
Sea level is projected to rise as much as 66 inches along the California coast by the year 2100. Though some models claim a two feet sea level rise, precise levels are difficult to gauge as they depend on societal choices globally and whether fossil fuels are burned at current debilitating rates.
“With these new scientific results that were just reported, we have to look at the higher end [projections of sea level rise],” Moser said. “What those studies told us is that the falling apart of the West Antarctic sheet is unstoppable. It will happen, albeit over hundreds of years. But that means even in this century we will get the higher end of the sea level rise scenario rather than getting away with the lower end. There is no mechanism I know of that could help us stay at the low end.”
The only current sea level rise projections for the California coast are “bathtub” models—which consider mainly static components of water level like tides and melting from glaciers. Dynamic models–which consider storm surges, waves, and wind and atmospheric pressure— are more accurate, and researchers at USC’s Sea Grant program will work with marine engineers to develop a dynamic coastal storm modeling system for the Southern California coastline for the next two years. Preliminary results should be available by June 2015.
“We are really lucky here in California because we have some of the best scientific modelers working on more dynamic models for California, which will be much more useful to planners and coastal managers making decisions about the coast,” said Alyssa Mann, USC Sea Grant’s regional research and planning specialist.
The only model that includes highly specific projections for the South Bay coastal cities is a 2009 study conducted by the Pacific Institute, which estimates a 55-inch sea level rise, consistent with U.S. Geological Survey models.
“The storms are really the most important thing on the West Coast for flooding,” said Mann. “Rising seas coupled with storms such as El Niño is what gives you the most significant flooding and erosion.”
Inland communities, especially those surrounded by mountains, such as in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, will experience dramatic increases in days with extremely hot temperatures, or days over 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Coastal communities are projected to be relatively unaffected by rising temperatures — the constant sea breezes, coastal clouds, and marine layer help offset the warming pattern occurring across Los Angeles County as a whole.
Yet global warming is not a contained phenomenon. Joe Galliani, director of the South Bay 350 Climate Action Group, said there is a misperception about how temperature will affect South Bay coastal communities. At the 15th annual South Bay Cities Council of Governments (SBCCOG) general assembly in February, he said, one speaker spoke of a “silver lining” to climate change.
“The temperatures are not going to rise as high here as they are just a few miles away from here,” the speaker said, as recounted by Galliani. “So for you in the South Bay, there’s some good news here because this means tourism is going to increase, because it’s going to be so hot other places. People are going to want to come here. It’s gonna mean your real estate values are going to increase because people are going to want to live here.”
Such scenarios ignore the interdependence of local and regional economies. An increase in days with extreme temperatures raises the demand for air conditioning, straining energy loads and burning more greenhouse gases, further hastening larger changes. Garden soils may dry out, growing seasons may be shortened, and plants may be more susceptible to pest outbreaks in warmer conditions. Agriculture statewide will likely be under duress.
Warmer temperatures also translate to warmer ocean waters. “There will be an increase in fog from more moisture,” said Krista Kline, managing director of the Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability, whose members include eleven cities, transportation authorities, universities, and utility districts. Increased fog, Kline noted, could be detrimental to beach economies that rely on clear days for recreation and tourism.
At the SBCCOG meeting, Galliani challenged the notion of climate “winners and losers.”
“I said, ‘That would be great if we lived on some kind of an island where we weren’t dependent for food and water and every other necessity from outside of here where it won’t be so good,’” Galliani said. “I don’t see it as a great advantage for us. Maybe we’ll hold on longer than other people, but how much more unfair would that be that the people who live in Inglewood or Gardena and close to the freeway have to suffer the worst?”
FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE: HERMOSA BEACH
The smallest city in the Beach Cities trio also has made some headway toward environmental sustainability. With a population of just under 20,000, the City of Hermosa Beach is currently updating its General Plan and Local Coastal Program for the first time in twenty years to include preparations for sea level rise and climate change effects.
In 2010, environmental activists Dency Nelson, Robert Fortunato, and Joe Galliani proposed and launched the Carbon Neutral City initiative with full support of the Hermosa Beach City Council, including then councilmember and current Hermosa Beach mayor Michael DiVirgilio.
A team of UCLA students led by Professor Juan Matute soon thereafter prepared a Carbon Neutral Scoping Plan for the city, which assessed the city’s energy outputs–natural gas, petroleum, hydrogen, water delivery, wastewater from processing sewage, recycling, and landfill–to determine how the city could best become carbon neutral. The report showed vehicle electrification and the decarbonization of electricity would make the most difference in steps towards neutralizing carbon.
After considering options for rooftop solar, the UCLA team recommended that Hermosa Beach form a community choice aggregation program with neighboring cities, eventually creating a utility district that would allow residents to choose the source of their energy, thus maximizing the use of renewable energy sources. In the past week, Galliani has garnered support among local council members and politicians in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach for a CCA and is confident that the South Bay will “transform quickly to renewable energy.”
Last November, the city was awarded a Southern California Association of Governments Green Regions grant to identify and take action toward municipal carbon neutrality. At present, carbon neutrality is under consideration for municipal operations such as switching the city’s transportation fleet to greener energy sources and improving lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning energy efficiency in municipal buildings and facilities.
After assessing the feasibility on the municipal level, “the city will be looking at whether it wants to include carbon neutrality as a goal in the general plan,” said Pam Townsend, the city’s senior planner.
FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE: MANHATTAN BEACH
The South Bay 350 Climate Action Group has spearheaded a campaign in Manhattan Beach called MB2025, to move the city off of fossil fuel energy sources to 100 percent renewable power sources by the year 2025.
At 400 parts per million, the current level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is the highest ever recorded. Scientists agree that 350 parts per million is a safe upper limit for carbon levels, and 350.org, a global grassroots climate action movement named for this safe carbon ceiling, has extended its roots to a South Bay chapter, directed by Joe Galliani.
As part of Earth Hour celebrations in March of this year, city officials, residents, and environmental advocates convened at an MB2025 forum that featured video speeches by heroes Bill McKibben and Congressman Henry Waxman and presentations by environmental specialists for best practices to convert to renewable energy. Later that night, more than 500 people gathered at the Manhattan Beach pier with LED-powered candles in hand to pledge their commitment to MB2025.
“What I want to do now is take the MB2025 vision and spread that to the other Beach Cities, in fact, the rest of South Bay if I can, and that then starts this domino process,” said Galliani, who organized the MB2025 forum with Sona Coffee, the city’s environmental programs manager.
“Right now, MB2025 is really just an initiative that started from the community,” said Coffee. “The next step is to make it an official city goal.” Next steps include briefing the city manager on the project, she confirmed.
The city has passed bans on plastic bags, and polystyrene food containers. Six public electric vehicle (EV) charging stations are already in place throughout Manhattan Beach, and the city recently received a small grant to install monitoring systems to connect EVs to a network via smartphone applications so users can.
Manhattan Beach residents can also make some green by going green. The city’s municipal water district West Basin has just increased the rebate amount for people who remove grass from their lawns and put in drought tolerant plants to $2 per square foot.
“The grant would give you about two to three thousand dollars for an average size lot, depending on how much turf you’re going to remove,” said Coffee. “And it’s a good way to save water.”
Film director James Cameron and producer Jon Landau of Avatar renown have installed 960 kilowatts of solar photovoltaic power on the rooftops of the Manhattan Beach production studios on Rosecrans Avenue where the movie’s two sequels are being made. MBS Media Campus is host to many other “eco initiatives” such as an on site bike share program and 100 percent reclaimed water used for landscaping.
“Going into the Avatar sequels…we’re going to be net zero,” said Cameron in a video shown at the MB2025 forum. “We’re going to be able to handle all of the need that we generate from our computers. We have to do this. We have to do this for the future, for our children, and we have to do as a moral responsibility to our planet.”
FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE: THE SOUTH BAY
Several South Bay cities are making efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Intercity organizations like the South Bay Cities Council of Governments (SBCCOG) and Volunteers and Organizations Improving the Community’s Environment (VOICE) have encouraged collaboration toward climate change mitigation.
SBCCOG is a joint powers authority that works with 15 South Bay cities and the City of Los Angeles to “add value for cities” that don’t have the staff or means to create initiatives that partner with neighboring cities. The organization was just awarded close to a million dollars by California’s Strategic Growth Council–a state-sponsored agency that funds sustainability projects–to create a complete climate action plan for the entire South Bay that integrates transportation, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions issues together.
“Energy consumption and transportation are the majority of the emissions in the South Bay,” said Jacki Bacharach, executive director of SBCCOG.
“I think it speaks to our cities working together,” said Bacharach in regards to the grant award. “It was a nice example for the Strategic Growth Council to see that we have a proven track record of working together to do these kinds of things for our cities.”
SBCCOG is currently working on creating energy efficiency assessment reports for the climate action plans of all 16 partner cities as well as an update for each city’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory report.
“The South Bay Cities Council of Governments is so far ahead of most entities in the region – it’s very cool,” said Kline. “I look to them a lot for how to pull together folks, what they’re working on. They’re doing a great job. They get it.”
VOICE, an environmental educational non-profit that helps South Bay individuals take action to improve their local environment through monthly meetings and events, is also a testament to the power of grassroots activism in the region. The organization awards Environmental Heroes each year at its Earth Day celebration, acknowledging businesses and individuals who promote environmental sustainability and inspiring others to follow suit.
“It’s kind of neat how we’ve been able to connect dots in the local community and help individuals really create success in their own community,” said Kaye Gagnon, co-founder of VOICE. “There’s so much you can do to lower your carbon footprint just in your own home: what kind of car you drive, what kind of energy you use in your home, how you manage your waste, how you manage your garden, having an edible garden and drought tolerant plants.”
“All of the things that enable us to stop the worst impacts of climate change can be done within walking distance of here in ten years,” added Galliani.
FACING THE FUTURE
The future holds the likelihood of diminished beachfronts for not just the South Bay, but every coastline on the planet. The impacts of climate change are all-encompassing and thus necessitate international collaboration, which can often be slow to action.
But cities, due to their size and relative influence, are politically dexterous and ideal arenas to test environmental initiatives like MB2025 and carbon neutrality.
“I think that all the work that these municipalities are doing for resilience and adaptation, I am incredibly hopeful about that,” said Kline. “I think the cities are going to come out of this much stronger and be fantastic places to live. They’re not just about dealing with the climate problem but they’re building more holistic cities as they do that.”
Environmental consciousness is growing, but many Americans still perceive global warming as a relatively distant threat. Only half believe climate change is human-induced, according to a survey conducted by the Yale Project for Climate Change Communication, which conducts research to gauge the American public’s climate knowledge.
“The whole concept of global warming should be the context for every discussion,” said Jeff Duclos, former Hermosa Beach council member and a resident of Hermosa Beach for 35 years.
“Science needs to lead in the way, but science can no longer be the lead in articulating this problem. This is no longer a science problem — it’s a social science problem.”
Cities are making progress toward environmental sustainability, but change most fundamentally occurs on the individual level. In the South Bay, a growing number of people are dedicating themselves to environmental work.
In Hermosa Beach, ironically, the proposal to drill for oil has inspired a nascent movement that goes much further than opposing oil.
“The good thing about this oil company coming to town…is it awakened and activated a whole group of people who had never been involved in environmental issues before, and they’re exactly the people that we’ve always tried to reach,” said Galliani.
“People that are workers in the community, moms, family members–a cross section of everybody…[who] on top of their professional lives, on top of raising their kids and families, are out there working their asses off. They are what I consider modern patriots. They are out there doing what the founders of this country did. It’s all community based.”
“People who would never have gotten involved in local government now are heavily involved, and I know that’s going to continue on,” added Cadwallader. “Now you’ve got people who really see they have to get involved to make a difference in your local community. I see this, and it really gives me hope that there is a better future.”
Many of the adaptative measures compelled by climate change, such as utilizing cleaner energy sources, have benefits beyond addressing the condition of the global environment.
“We have nothing to lose by preparing ourselves for a future warmer climate,” said Berg, the UCLA climatologist. “It’s only going to improve the community, and what’s more important than securing the environment around you?”