Newsletter: Essential California: Our disappearing coastline

Beaches are the state’s pride and joy. Many could vanish by the end of the century, depending on how Californians choose to adapt to sea level rise.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. Today’s special Sunday edition of the Essential California newsletter comes from Los Angeles Times Assistant Managing Editor Shelby Grad:

Wildfire and drought dominate the climate change debates in the state. Yet this less-talked-about reality has California cornered. The coastline is eroding with every tide and storm, but everything built before we knew better — Pacific Coast Highway, multimillion-dollar homes in Malibu, the rail line to San Diego — is fixed in place with nowhere to go.

In a Times special report, environment reporter Rosanna Xia explores how the rising ocean is a slow-moving disaster that promises to dramatically alter the state.

The situation is worsening, and there are no easy solutions:


Should California become one long wall of concrete against the ocean? Will there still be sandy beaches or surf breaks to cherish in the future, oceanfront homes left to dream about? More than $150 billion in property could be at risk of flooding by 2100 — the economic damage far more devastating than the state’s worst earthquakes and wildfires. Salt marshes, home to shorebirds and endangered species, face extinction. In Southern California alone, two-thirds of beaches could vanish.

[Read the story: “The California coast is disappearing under the rising sea. Our choices are grim” by Rosanna Xia in the Los Angeles Times]

Plus: How would you save the California coast? Play this game and try to save a coastal town from the rising sea.

PACIFICA, CALIFORNIA--JAN. 20, 2019--On Pacifica Esplanade Dog Beach, the remains of an apartment bu
Remnants of a blufftop apartment building in Pacifica fell down to the beach, where large rocks form a barrier against the rising sea.
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)


What the coast means to California:

“The Pacific is my home ocean; I knew it first, grew up on its shore, collected marine animals along the coast. I know its moods, its color, its nature. It was very far inland that I caught the first smell of the Pacific. When one has been long at sea, the smell of land reaches far out to greet one. And the same is true when one has been long inland.”

— John Steinbeck

“I know a place

Where the grass is really greener

Warm, wet n’ wild

There must be something in the water

Sippin’ gin and juice


Laying underneath the palm trees”

— Katy Perry, “California Gurls”

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There is no California without the coast. Our beaches are celebrated as a life force and filled with amazing tales. Here is a selection of some of the best journalism about the California coast.

  • You hike down from a nondescript point in gritty Daly City and come across a beach scene like no other. This is the coast managed by the San Andreas fault, and it tells you something dangerous about California. (The New Yorker, August 1992)
  • The underground surf culture of Malibu in the 1960s, and how it spawned “Gidget” as well as some things much darker. (Vanity Fair, February 2011).
  • A stunning oral history of the great Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, which fundamentally changed the way Californians view the coast and sparked preservation. (Pacific Standard, April 2017)
  • The rusty ghost ships off the Santa Barbara coast. (Los Angeles Times, March 2019)
  • In 2016, as the California coast was being threatened by new development, Times columnist Steve Lopez created a travelogue, starting in Crescent City and moving down the coast to San Diego. His postcards spoke to the majesty and fragility of the beaches. (Los Angeles Times, August 2016)
  • Can you really walk the length of the California coast? These hikers tried, and found natural and bureaucratic barriers on a journey they would never forget. (Los Angeles Times, September 2003)
  • The enduring tale of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. Sorting out fact from fiction for Juana Maria, the Native American woman who arrived on the shores of Santa Barbara with an unbelievable story. (Smithsonian, December 2017)
  • North of San Francisco, homeless people have built a community in the abandoned boats and vessels on Richardson Bay. It’s coastal living on the edge. (Harper’s, May 2019)
  • A team of developers and architects set out to build a utopian world on a sliver of the California coast north of San Francisco. There has been endless debate since whether they remotely succeeded. (Curbed, February 2019)
  • An epic two-part tale of the madman of San Francisco surfing, who insists he can take on any wave. (The New Yorker — Part One and Part Two, August 1992)
  • Surfing culture also produced a truly California genre of writing. Here is the best of Surf Lit. (Lit Hub, June 2016)

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.