An Unstable Future

Between 1999 and 2005, Lance Armstrong won seven straight Tour De France titles, breaking the record for both consecutive and total wins in the competition’s history. His laundry list of accomplishments and accolades in both domestic and international races solidified him as the most dominant cyclist in the sport’s history. Armstrong was the perfect athlete. And then, in the blink of an eye, he wasn’t.

In 2012, he was stripped of his seven Tour De France trophies and permanently banned from competing in Olympic sports. Armstrong broke the most sacred rule in modern sports: he competed while using performance-enhancing drugs. Although he was regarded as one of the best in the sport prior to his steroid use, his race performances were far from historic. While many credited his doping-induced success to hard work and sheer force of will, Armstrong succeeded at such a high level for one reason: steroids.

Today, as our changing world breaks new temperature and sea-level records each year, environmental experts are faced with a similar situation. While many may argue that the adverse effects of climate change are merely a “natural process,” which cannot be linked to human impact, the statistics say otherwise.

“Fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions are like steroids for our climate,” Dr. Alexander Gershunov, a research meteorologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said. “You clearly see the impacts of these steroids in the statistics of weather extremes.”

From unstable food harvests to collapsing cliff-sides, climate change poses a threat to nearly every facet of life in San Diego. It is in the air you breathe, the trails you hike and the plants you grow — it is uncaring, universal and only getting worse.

“No place is immune to the effects of climate change,” Gershunov said. “Because climate change is everywhere.”

Above all else, San Diego is a coastal community. The Pacific plays an integral role in nearly every aspect of life in our community. But while the glossy and sparkling surface of our local beaches may exude an aura of serenity, the reality is that they are changing at a rapid pace. And climate change is to blame.

As global temperatures rise due to human-induced climate change, glaciers and ice sheets melt, and seawater becomes less dense and expands. Both of these mechanisms increase the volume of water in our oceans, raising sea levels at an unprecedented rate. The impacts of this process are reshaping the topography of beaches across the globe, and San Diego is no exception.

“When waves and water levels rise on the beach, the sand is often the first thing to be driven off the shore, and the heavier cobbles remain,” Mark Merrifield, a professor of oceanography at Scripps, said, referring to the large rocks found on Southern California beaches. “There’s a future where our beaches may look more like the beaches of England, where there’s just these cobble shores.”

But shrinking sand beaches and the presence of rocks in their place is not the most concerning aspect of sea level rise in San Diego. The real problems begin where the ocean meets the bluff.

As rising tides begin to undercut the many miles of steep, rocky slopes that tower over our local beaches, the accumulated moisture and loss of sediment causes them to lose their footing, so to speak. Their foundation weakens, and their structural support becomes more unstable, increasing the likelihood of sudden collapses.

In recent years, bluff collapses along the San Diego shoreline have caused disruptions in railway services on the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo rail corridor, which transports $1 billion in goods and carries close to 8 million passengers annually. Miles of this integral railway are located along the Del Mar bluffs.

“Every time there is a bluff collapse or the stability of the bluff is unstable, the train service is stopped,” Sharon Humphreys, Director of Engineering and Construction at the San Diego Association of Governments, said. “When the rail line is closed, goods that would be moved by rail are diverted onto trucks. Fewer people may visit the region, and this negatively impacts the San Diego region’s economy.”

But there are more personal sides to climate change’s impacts on our oceans and bluffs. For many San Diegans, the beaches are a part of their soul, and any damage to them hits home.

“Recently, the bluff erosion has been super bad, and they are collapsing constantly,” Kaede Ward, captain of the TPHS Surf Team, said. “About three months ago at Black’s Beach there was a huge bluff collapse, and just the sheer force of the damage I think was eye-opening for a lot of people. This isn’t just an issue for the homeowners on bluffs but us also.”

Many regional parks and reserves in San Diego also border the shore. They serve as vital refuges for San Diegans, a place where nature lovers and beachgoers alike go to relish in the beauty of our region’s natural environments.

“[Our parks] have become this asylum where people go to; we use the term recreation, but when you think of what that word means it’s to ‘recreate’ yourself,” said Ed Vodrazka, a former California Department of Parks and Recreation lifeguard peace officer. “When you get away from your nine-to-five job or your school schedule or whatever your responsibilities are for the day, you go to the parks and you relax and you recreate.”

But these pockets of local beauty have already seen the slow, but continuous, encroachment of the sea, signaling more change to come.

“Most of our parks are the last bit of public land between a major transportation corridor and the ocean,” said Darren Smith, Senior Environmental Scientist at the California State Parks San Diego Coast District, which manages 13 regional parks stretching from Carlsbad State Beach to Border Field State Park at the southern border of the U.S. “We really don’t have much room to grow once the ocean erodes and eats away at our parks. We’re going to have to start maintaining parks further inland, or we’re just going to disappear.”

Bluff erosion and collapse have tangible effects on everyday San Diegans. And sometimes, those effects can be tragic.

On Aug. 2, 2019, three members of Dr. Pat Davis’ family were killed in a bluff collapse at Grandview Beach in Encinitas.

“These bluffs are very unpredictable about when and if they could collapse,” Davis said. “My kids had been to that beach a thousand times before. Nobody can predict when those kinds of things can happen.”

Since the collapse, Davis has worked with city officials, spoken before the California State Assembly and lobbied politicians in Washington D.C. in hopes of reforming the bluff-safety policies currently in place.

“Most of it has fallen upon deaf ears,” Davis said.

Still, he will continue to advocate for increased safety measures.

“I dread the possibility that [what I experienced] could happen to somebody else’s family,” he said.

The adverse threats of climate change do not stop at our shores. From unpredictable meteorological patterns to rising temperatures, climate change’s influence casts a shadow on the entirety of San Diego. Still, some locals remain adamant that, unlike the extreme weather shifts that have plagued Northern California, temperate weather and near-constant sunshine will continue to define our community.

“The flooding that farmers are dealing with in Northern California will never happen here,” Jacqui White, a grower with Farmer Steve Inc, said. “I’m not concerned about our farms.”

But environmental experts disagree.

“The main impacts [of climate change on San Diego] come from extreme weather events.” Gershunov said. “That’s the most intimately related to global warming, and our region is no exception.”

When most San Diegans think of extreme weather, drought and high temperatures spring to mind. While climate change will continue to bring intense heat waves and droughts across Southern California, their frequency, length and humidity will increase exponentially.

“These heat waves are becoming warmer throughout the day,” Gershunov said. “But it’s especially nighttime temperatures that just don’t [decrease] nearly as much as they used to.”

These changing heat waves will have an acute impact on those with pre-existing health conditions, economically disadvantaged communities who cannot afford air conditioning, elderly people living alone, the homeless population and other at-risk individuals.

“It’s a double whammy for health impacts,” Gershunov said. “We don’t get that respite from the heat, and the health of people who are more susceptible to heat starts failing during these humid heat waves much more quickly than during the typical dry heat that we [usually] get.”

But contrary to popular belief, atmospheric fluctuations due to climate change will not lead to a complete absence of rain, or permanent drought. Instead, experts anticipate a decrease in the number of storms, but a drastic increase in their severity.

“When it rains, it pours,” said Dr. Deanna Nash, a Postdoctoral Researcher with the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the University of California San Diego. “The amount of rainfall we’re getting from year to year is shifting drastically.”

The past few months of extreme rainfall in San Diego have been a prime example of this. According to the National Weather Service, January 2023 was the San Diego’s wettest month since February 2005.

These extreme storms are often referred to as atmospheric rivers, streams of water vapor that transport moisture kilometers of across thousands of ocean before they make landfall, causing rainfall.

“Atmospheric rivers become moister; they carry more humidity and produce more rainfall in a warmer climate,” Gershunov said.

San Diego citizens are already feeling the effects of this change.

“There’s been constant flooding across much of Fashion Valley. There were even landslides across [the county] in December and January,” said Nash. “The topography of San Diego is very variable. So there’s lots of hills, valleys and lots of opportunities for landslip failure.”

But by the end of the century, this level of flooding will not only occur as a result of storm surges. Sea level rise will make these floods a norm for beachgoers in San Diego.

“Most days will experience some sort of nuisance flooding along the coast,” Merrifield said. “You just need high tide and you’ll start to get inundation.”

Still, some local activists believe this is a future we can prevent.

“It can be a little bit disheartening to realize that one person alone isn’t going to solve the climate crisis,” Sydney Chan, a climate activist at Canyon Crest Academy said. “But I also think that if everyone is [taking small steps], it will create an impact.”

But these actions could lead to more than just a healthier planet. For Gershunov, environmental action isn’t just a duty to our planet, but to ourselves.

“It makes us healthier and happier to do things that help bring about a bright future,” Gershunov said. “It’s never too late to do that. There are things that everyone can do.”
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