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California beach towns: Who wins, who loses as sea levels rise

February 29, 2012 | 12:39 pm

Huntington Beach

There will be winners and there will be losers as Southern California beaches erode unevenly in response to rising sea levels over the next century, according to a new study.

Using models to project how climate change would alter the width of the sand, attendance and visitor spending at 51 public beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties, a team of researchers found some would shrink or even disappear. But others would remain relatively large.

A 1-meter rise in sea level would reduce the width of beaches up and down the coast, according to the study. And with the changes come economic consequences for beach towns that count on the seashore to produce a steady stream of tourist dollars.

Smaller beaches in towns like Laguna Beach stand to lose $14 million annually because of narrowing while larger beaches in places like Huntington Beach could gain as much as $16 million each year as visitors increasingly head to their more spacious shores.

“Every beach is going to get a little bit smaller because of the bathtub effect of water rising,” said the study's lead author, Linwood Pendleton, director of ocean and coastal policy at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

"But a lot of these beaches aren’t low-lying and they’re going to do just fine in the face of sea level rise. So Californians are just going to change what they do at the beach and the places they go.”

The study found that a single year of severe winter storms and high tides similar to the El Niño of 1982-83 could scour sand from one beach and deposit it at another, leading to upward and downward swings in beach revenue of up to $25 million a year.

Importing sand could help offset economic losses of narrowing beaches, but erosive winter storms make that work costly.

While it would cost L.A. and Orange counties roughly $436 million to keep pace with the slow, steady sea-level rise, the study found, the region could spend as much as $382 million to repair the effects of a single stormy year.

The study, published in the journal Climatic Change, was funded by the California Energy Commission and the state Dept. of Boating and Waterways, which oversees beach sand replenishment projects up and down the coast.

Projected changes in annual revenue after a 1-meter rise in sea level*


1. Huntington City Beach: +$16 million
2. Will Rogers State Beach: +$15 million
3. Newport Beach: +$13 million
4. Manhattan Beach: +$8 million
5. Sunset Beach: +$6 million


1. Laguna Beach: -$15 million
2. Bolsa Chica State Beach: -$11 million
3. Crystal Cove State Park: -$11 milion
4. Redondo Beach: -$10 million
5. Long Beach: -$7 million

* From the study "Estimating the potential economic impacts of climate change on Southern California beaches"

-- Tony Barboza

Photo: A beach scene in Huntington Beach. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times