Sustaining Orange County: Environmental Scientist On Rising Sea Levels

Aerial shot of Capistrano Beach in September 2018; Photograph by Matt Larmand @mattlarmand

The realities of the global climate crisis can seem overwhelming. Every day, there’s new information about how the environment and human health are being threatened. And the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic has people wondering about possible parallels.

But there are plenty of Orange County residents fighting to make positive change. We highlight that great work here—from green businesses and university researchers to volunteer groups and civil servants. Passionate locals are working together to create a sustainable future; let them inspire you to take action in ways large and small.

Meet the Helpers

People from all industries are taking steps to better the environment.

Mary Matella, environmental scientist for the California Coastal Commission

How much are sea levels rising?
The issue with sea level is it might be rising a little bit now, but if you look at all the science, it can accelerate even faster. No matter what happens, the seas are going to rise; we know it’s not going to turn around. It can either rise slowly or it can rise fast. … There could be 1 to 2 feet of sea-level rise by 2050, and up to 7 feet by 2100.

What are the dangers of that?
Sea-level rise can have consequences beyond flooding homes and businesses because it will also affect all land uses along the shoreline. This means roads and other infrastructure and beaches will face higher tidal levels and the chance for storms to push waves even farther inland. This will erode more shoreline. Another impact is groundwater rise under shallow coastal water tables, which can cause flooding from groundwater emergence or from blocked stormwater drains, and saltwater intrusion into freshwater sources, which can cause wells to be contaminated.

What are cities doing to prepare?
Ideally these cities’ plans are finding out which triggers mean you need to do the next thing. So maybe you’re fine to pump out the streets in Newport Beach as long as the sea level is (rising) 1 foot or less. But when the sea level is (rising) 3 feet or more, you’re going to have to do something different because it costs too much to operate those pumps daily. … Responding to (beach) erosion will likely be a combination of phased approaches, which often start with an emergency action—like the (makeshift wall of sand cubes) at Capistrano Beach—while longer-lasting alternative actions and designs are explored.

Capistrano Beach in December 2018, after storms and high tides caused the basketball court and boardwalk to collapse; Photograph by Matt Larmand @mattlarmand

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