Beachside Experiment: The Dunes are Alive Along the Santa Monica Coast

LOS ANGELES – We covered a lot of ground during our recent special series on climate change, including the grim fate of our beaches. As our science reporter Jacob Margolis put it: based on the latest research, the beaches from Santa Monica to Malibu could be unrecognizable by the end of the century.

One of the ways the city of Santa Monica has been working to address specific aspects of that change — sea-level rise and coastal flooding — is with something called “living dunes.”

Part naturally occurring sandhills, part landscaping, the living dunes represent an attempt to help nature restore itself along the Santa Monica waterfront.

The Bay Foundation, a non-profit environmental group, partnered with the city to set aside three acres of sand for this beachside experiment to see how well the dunes could combat beach erosion compared to other methods.

The Bay Foundation installed informational signage and illustrations for the public to learn the benefits of restoration and the wildlife it can bring to the beach. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

The program was set up three years ago near the Annenberg Community Beach House on a stretch of beach that has been groomed and leveled for more than 50 years. Typically along the coast, trucks and tractors are brought in to rake the beach of trash and debris, but this disrupts the way beaches are supposed to look.

“Beaches normally want to have plants and dunes,” said researcher Melodie Grubbs, director of watershed programs at The Bay Foundation. Coastal cities have created an image of big, pristine white beaches that attract beachgoers, but that aesthetic has come at the cost of habitat and protection from coastal flooding.

Grubbs said it’s time for action.

“As a coastal community, we need to start doing things now,” she said. “This is a matter of: Do we want to keep our beaches and enjoy them for future generations? And this is definitely a part of the solution.”

Melodie Grubbs, director of watershed programs, stands on the path which crosses in the middle of the beach restoration site. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

The Greener Option

State agencies and city planners have tried several methods when trying to shore up the beaches and prepare for rising sea levels.

Traditionally, seawalls and other types of flooding protection have been the default. The priorities in the past have been to save homes and infrastructure first. But these can be expensive and also come “at the cost of the beach,” Grubbs said.

When hard structures are in place, the tide pulls sand off beaches, making erosion worse and creating a cliffside with no beach below.

The advantage of living dunes is that in addition to protecting the coastline, they are considered a greener option because they use existing sand instead of re-located sand — which is costly and creates more pollution by trucking it in.

Santa Monica’s not the only city to experiment with living dunes. Encinitas is using a similar method on Cardiff State Beach. But where the beaches on Cardiff have rocks supporting the dunes, Santa Monica is using plants and fencing to help maintain shape.

The north-facing fence line on the Santa Monica Beach Restoration Pilot Project, illustrating the contrast between the growth of vegetation of native plant species and the sands beyond the edge. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

At the onset of the experiment, researchers blanketed the test area with 40,000 seeds with the idea that coastal beach plant species would reset the ecosystem. The native, drought-resistant plants could create a root system to sustain the structure of the dunes naturally. It’s an experiment, so “we sort of just put it here and wait and see what would happen. We just left it,” said Grubbs.

Since installation, areas on the site have risen above 1-3 meters in height. The beach is dotted with beautiful flowering sand verbena and beach evening primrose throughout. Yellow and purple blooms create a beach with colorful freckles that harken to the shorelines of the East Coast. Also thriving are sea scale and beach bur, both low-lying plants that help support the miniature sand dunes.

Beach evening primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia) is one of the flowering plants that add color to the pilot’s landscape. (Courtesy of The Bay Foundation)

The Living Lab

Researchers will continue to evaluate how the dunes might act as protection for coastal infrastructure. This demonstration site will provide not only a scientific basis to develop guidelines and protocols but an integrated, locally based program for increasing the usefulness of natural environments in a developed area.

The foundation is publishing its findings from “soft” low-cost natural shore protection from sea-level rise and storms in the next year.

“This project gave us a real opportunity to see what this type of soft-scape project could do for the ecosystem,” said Grubbs. “It’s a living lab for us to watch.”

An artistic rendering of how the site may look several years post-restoration. (Courtesy of The Bay Foundation)

The dunes, also known as dune hummocks, are also restoring habitat for invertebrates, birds, and rare coastal vegetation species.

Groomed beaches provide a harsh landscape for shorebirds and insects, offering them little protection from natural predators. Greenery serves as both cover and a food source for smaller organisms. Larger species like birds are able to nest and find shelter within the dune hummocks. The Western Snowy Plover, a federally recognized threatened species, has even been spotted on the beach after an absence of over 70 years, due to the restoration pilot.

The project has also proven to be something of a “cultural experiment,” Grubbs said. “Generations of people in this area have not seen this kind of beach. But it also acts as a model. This shows that regular beach use and restoration projects can exist in the same space,” she said.

Native beach plants and sand beetle tracks show that areas of the restoration are returning to a wild beach habitat. (Tamika Adams/LAist/KPCC)

Looking Ahead

Next up for The Bay Foundation’s beach restoration efforts is the “Malibu Living Shoreline Project.”

For this one, they’ll partner with the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors and the California State Coastal Conservancy to restore 3 acres of sandy beach and dune habitat at Zuma Beach and Point Dume Beach.

Bye-Bye Beaches: How Parts of SoCal’s Iconic Coast Could Disappear in Our Lifetime

LOS ANGELES – The stretch of coast from Santa Monica to Malibu is iconic and quintessentially Californian. It’s also ridiculously beautiful — and it’s clear, based on the latest science, it could be unrecognizable by the end of the century.

As the planet warms, sea levels will continue to rise, threatening some of our most beloved stretches of coastline.

I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time on those beaches. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, I used to head over the hill in my friend’s baby blue VW bus, or my mom’s minivan, to surf Topanga or Malibu on my 9’8 Kennedy longboard. It was and still is an amazing escape from the traffic, heat and urban sprawl of the Valley.

I wanted to know exactly what climate change could mean for our beach-going experience through the end of the century, so I reached out to scientists and stakeholders to find out what they know.

Here are the challenges — and some solutions.

Seas Will Rise

First, some context.

A few feet of sea level rise might not sound very alarming, but every vertical foot could mean roughly 20 feet farther that the ocean encroaches inland (depending on a lot of factors, like the slope of the coastline), according to Patrick Barnard, a research scientist at the US Geological Survey.

The state’s 2018 sea level rise guidance laid out different scenarios based on how much we curb our greenhouse gas emissions.

Low emissions: 66% chance of between 0.9 and 2.3 feet of rise in Santa Monica by 2100, and similar rise in other parts of Southern California.

Low emissions: 66% chance of between 0.9 and 2.3 feet of rise in Santa Monica by 2100, and similar rise in other parts of Southern California.

As a precaution, the report recommends that state officials anticipate 10 feet of rise when building crucial infrastructure along the coast.

Keep in mind some researchers think we’ve been underestimating just how bad things could get.

Beaches Will Disappear

According to a paper co-authored by Barnard, SoCal could lose between 31% – 67% of its beaches by 2100.

And areas like Malibu could be threatened in the coming decades.

“I mean these are very, very narrow beaches. They’re already having lots of issues, and just a bit of sea level rise and they’re going to be completely gone,” said Barnard, adding that Malibu could see a major loss of its beaches in the coming decades.


Homes are sandwiched between rising water and Pacific Coast Highway at Carbon Beach in Malibu. Photographed from the air on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Video by James Bernal for LAist)

Our coastline is always changing, but as sea levels rise and intense storm surges (potentially) become more common, there’s conflict between natural processes and the parts of our coast we want to save.

“If we didn’t have anything built on the coast, the beaches in the coastal zone are incredibly dynamic and built to change. When sea level comes up, the beach moves in. When sea level goes out … the beach moves out with it,” said Kiki Patsch, who studies sediment dynamics at Cal State Channel Islands.

“But when sea level rises and we draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is the beach and these are my homes,’ we have a problem,” she said.

When water encroaches and beaches have nowhere to go, because we decide to protect infrastructure and homes, we’re likely going to lose those beaches.


Santa Monica’s beaches are substantially wider than those in Malibu. Photographed from the air on September 9, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Video by James Bernal for LAist)

Beaches like Santa Monica that have been widened with massive amounts of sediment could hold up with regular additions of sand, at least for a period of time.

Here’s a visualization of what rising sea levels could theoretically look like from the pier:

Caltrans just released its vulnerability assessments for our region, and they’re particularly bleak for our coast. There’s not much area between the ocean and the hills in many spots. Really, much of it’s just homes and critical infrastructure, like PCH. Which means that in some places we’re going to have to decide between one or the other.

“There can be situations where if we’re using shoreline protection to protect private residential development, that might be coming at the expense of a public beach area. And that’s going to be a huge environmental justice issue,” said Madeline Cavaleri, statewide planning manager for the California Coastal Commission. “We don’t know how this is going to play out.”

Las Tunas Beach, and the homes along the coast will see signifcant sea level rise over time because of the effects of climate change. Photographed on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by James Bernal for LAist)

Surfing Could Take a (Duck) Dive

Surf spots are complicated.

I talked to Dan Reineman, a professor at Cal State Channel Islands who’s studied the impact of sea level rise on waves.

He said that at three feet, Malibu’s waves could get mushy. Surfers already experience that at high tide. With sea level rise it would be like it’s high tide all the time.

That said, it’s more complicated than just plunking down additional water on top of a break. How we manage our coasts and sediment flow will all impact what we experience on shore.

Scenes from a Monday morning at Malibu Surfrider Beach on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by James Bernal for LAist)

“Whether you are armoring the sea cliffs or damming the rivers, that’ll have ramifications all of the way down the coast, because that is where the sand is coming from,” said Patsch.

That could mean that if we decide to stick sea walls and big piles of rocks up and down our coast to protect what’s there, surf spots could suffer, too.

That could, “pull the sand offshore and downshore, so it’ll get deeper offshore. Waves break because they start to interact with the bottom, so when it’s deeper you lose your surf break,” she said.

Derek Grimes, a Ph.D. student in physical oceanography at Scripps, noted that while the transport of sediment could negatively impact Malibu’s beaches, we don’t know how it could impact other breaks up and down the coast. It’s possible that new, sought-after spots will pop up.

Grimes told me he’s seen that happen off the coast of North Carolina when the bottom of channels are dredged for ships.

What We Do Matters

The good news is that everything we love about our coast is not going to disappear overnight. And we’ll have the opportunity to decide how we want to manage things going forward.

Related story

The Changing Climate of the American West: A Regional Call-In Special

For instance:

We can continue to dump sand and “nourish” beaches, though sand is an expensive and finite resource that can be wiped away easily by storms.

Places like Santa Monica and Cardiff Beach are experimenting with living dunes.

We can move homes and Highway 1 – and maybe even turn the latter into, say, hiking areas, like they did in Pacifica.

And some people want to install armoring up and down our entire coast, which could run into big problems with California law. Some homeowners in places like Broad Beach in Malibu figured out a workaround and did it on their own.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

SoCal City Fights Climate Change with Million Dollar Sand Dunes

ENCINITAS, Calif. – The city of Encinitas used some giant scissors to cut a giant ribbon, to celebrate some giant piles of sand on Cardiff State Beach.

Sometimes giant piles of sand are just sand. But these piles are not. They’re engineered “living dunes” that have been five years in the making. And they’re part of an ongoing effort to save Cardiff from rising sea levels.

These super dunes may even provide a roadmap for saving other beaches that are susceptible to climate change, up and down California’s coast.

Erosion, Erosion, Erosion

When it comes to California’s beaches, erosion is normal. Our coastal landscapes are meant to change. However, rising sea levels and intense storms have exacerbated the dangers of erosion, and the fact that we’ve built homes and infrastructure right up against it means that it’s a huge concern.

In many places, we fight against erosion by “nourishing” beaches, which means adding a bunch of sand to increase their size, like at Zuma Beach in Malibu. We sometimes also line the beaches with giant rocks, especially along roads, the hope being that those rocks will absorb some of the energy put out by the powerful ocean, thus saving the infrastructure behind them.

The living dunes at Cardiff State Beach in Encinitas are roughly 14 feet above sea level and three feet above Highway 101. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

That’s what officials were doing at Cardiff for years, in an effort to protect the beach and North Coast Highway 101, but it wasn’t working.

“[Cardiff] was already experiencing flooding during extreme high tide events and during extreme storms,” said Jayme Timberlake, Coastal Zone Program Administrator for the City of Encinitas.

Any sand that they used to nourish the beach was quickly washed away, shrinking its usable area. And the rocks that they used to protect the 101 were just being thrown up onto it.

“It did cause a lot of issues with access, access to the highway itself. The highway is pretty critical for daily commuters,” said Timberlake.

Recognizing that the problem wasn’t going to get any better as sea levels rose, the city decided to act, and over the course of five years designed and built a “living shoreline.”

While the process is similar to beach nourishment in that it uses a lot of sand, it’s completely different in that it’s meticulously engineered, offers tiers of protection and is designed to last a long time.

Like a Sandy Layer Cake

Beneath the piles of sand are rocks, or cobble, that are stacked at specific angles, and increase in size the further you get from the water. They’re buried about ten feet deep and are sitting on top of a thick fabric that’s designed to keep them from sinking.

“There’s science backing cobble at being pretty effective at shoreline protection. It stacks up more steeply and higher as waves attack it,” said Brian Leslie, Senior Coastal Scientist with GHD, a firm that the city contracted with on the project. “It’s … like this first line of defense for the dune, so the dune doesn’t get eroded right away when we start to get these big waves and tides.”

The city installed sand fences and planted native vegetation on top of the mounds to stop them from blowing away. There’s also the added benefit of building natural habitat for the adorable snowy plovers.

“This is a coastal strand that was formerly … a dune system, so it’s bringing back what used to be here and it’s meant to be a permanent feature,” said Leslie.

The dunes will erode so they’ll require nourishing, though it’s unclear how often.

Sand fencing establishes a pathway through the living dunes at Cardiff State Beach. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

A Big Experiment

“The Cardiff project is very unique. Nobody has really tried that before in California,” said Nick Sadrpour, Science, Research & Policy Specialist at the University of Southern California’s Sea Grant Program. “This burgeoning idea of living shorelines, of working with nature, of mimicking nature, is really exciting from a coastal resilience perspective.”

While living shorelines have had success on the East Coast, we don’t know how they’re going to work out here. There are a few places they’re being tested, including Santa Monica and Orange County.

Related story

Drylands & Dust: Climate Models Predict Worsening Soil Erosion in the West

Cardiff, though, is a big experiment.

Researchers from the SCRIPPS Institution of Oceanography and UCLA, as well as government groups like the California Coastal Commission and the State Coastal Conservancy, will all be keeping tabs on what goes on there.

They’ll be watching for changes in the growth and slope of the dunes, as well as the movement of cobble and sand migration.

“Success is the stabilization of the dunes,” said Timberlake. “While we try to discern the next steps in adapting to sea level rise, and to these larger sea level rise projections.”

If all goes well, similar projects could pop up all along the coast. However, they won’t be workable for every location, and it’s not like the project was exactly cheap.

These dunes cost between 2.5 to 3 million dollars, according to Timberlake.

Sand fencing has been installed on the living dunes to slow erosion via wind. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

And even if the dunes are successful, both Timberlake and Leslie acknowledge that they may only last 20 to 30 years before rising sea levels make them impractical, at least at Cardiff.

“Once we get to the three feet and over [range], it’s going to be tough to keep a dune system here,” said Leslie. “It’s a problem now and that problem’s going to get worse over time.”

California could lose roughly half of its beaches by 2100, according to the United States Geological Survey.

“After 30 years, we haven’t quite identified what we’re going to do yet,” said Timberlake. “It basically bought us some further time to devise plans for that area.”

Drylands & Dust: Climate Models Predict Worsening Soil Erosion in the West

DENVER – Soil erosion in the West is getting worse. And that’s creating more dust – which isn’t good for ecosystems, human health or the economy.

A study from the U.S. Geological Survey says more than 200-thousand square miles of land in the United States is more susceptible than ever to soil erosion from wind. And roughly two-thirds of that is on federally managed land in the West.

Dust samplers near Hanksville, Utah track wind erosion of soils, which is a significant resource management challenge on the Colorado Plateau. (Photo by Erika Geiger/USGS, Southwest Biological Science Center)

Michael Duniway, the lead author on the study, said activities that remove vegetation and disturb the soil are the most harmful. “Things like energy exploration and development can do some of that as well as off-highway vehicles,” Duniway said.

He said livestock overgrazing is another culprit, as well as droughts and wildfires. “We do know that we get more dust and wind erosion off the desert,” said Duniway, “when things are warmer and when things are drier.”

These photos, taken two hours apart, show the reduction in visibility during a dust storm in Utah. (Photo courtesy Michael Duniway/USGS)

Duniway said climate models predict those conditions will only get worse. He said wind erosion is not only bad for desert ecosystems like in the Four Corners area because soil loses its nutrients to the air, but soil erosion also hurts non-desert areas.

“Accelerated erosion by wind off the desert can transport dust into the Rocky Mountains,” said Duniway, “and that landing on the snowpack can cause a decrease in annual water flows for the Colorado River basin which is a large deal, considering the importance of the Colorado River for agriculture and city uses in the West.”

Related story

Congress OKs Drought Contingency Plan, Capping Years of Colorado River Debate

What’s more, he said, the dust caused by erosion can lead to a host of human health problems as well as economic and ecological consequences.

He said we should look to how we responded to the Dust Bowl era, when policymakers relied on scientific research and consequently implemented better conservation practices.

This article was first published by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.