Monday, July 29, 2019

California Dreaming and Erosion “Crises”

published in the Pacific Tribune July 24th 

What’s Natural? 

California Dreaming and Erosion “Crises”

California's Undulating Coastline

California’s spectacular coastline attracts tourists from around the world. Headlands of granite or basalt resist erosion, defiantly jutting out into the sea. Pocket beaches form where focused wave energy bites into softer sandstones and uncemented stream sediments. Relentless waves undermine and steepen cliffs bordering 70% of California’s shoreline. Over hundreds and thousands of years, natural erosion sculpted our awe-inspiring undulating coast. 

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder - likewise the magnitude of a “coastal crisis”. The Los Angeles Times recently published ‘California coast is disappearing under the rising sea. Our choices are grim’. They inaccurately painted natural erosion as a recent crisis due to COinduced climate change. However, California’s erosion “crisis” must be understood within a greater timeframe.

Since the end of the last ice age, sea level has risen 400 feet. Over 18,000 years, San Francisco’s regional coastline marched 25 miles inland, advancing 7 feet a year - more than twice California’s average. My beautiful home town of Pacifica was featured in that Times’ article because it lost several homes unfortunately built on loosely cemented sand and gravel deposited 100,000 years ago when sea level was 20 feet higher. Although the ocean’s landward march has slowed over the past 5000 years, northern Pacifica’s fragile coastline still retreated by over 7 feet per year between 1929 and 1943. Despite a warming world, the average rate of cliff retreat then markedly declined since 1943.

The ill-fated Ocean Shore Railway, initiated in 1905, foreshadowed California’s erosion problems. To give tourists awesome views, tracks were laid on a ledge dug into steep coastal cliffs. But landslides were common, and costly repairs forced the railway to close. Today, only 25% of the railway ledge built by 1928 still exists. Undeterred, designers of California’sscenic Pacific Coast Highway hoped to give automobile travelers similar breath-taking views. Again, landslides were common. Only 38% of the highway constructed by 1956 still remains. Geologists tell us such landslides constantly altered California’s modern coastline for hundreds of years.

There are few straight lines in nature. Our coastlines undulate. Likewise, our climate oscillates, and coasts erode episodically. Between 1976 and 1999 (the warm phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation), California experienced more frequent El Niños. Over 70% of California’s 20th century disappearing coastline eroded during El Niño events. El Niños bring more storms and more destructive waves. El Niños bring more rains that saturate soils and promote landslides.  The Pacific Decadal Oscillation then switched to its cool phase. It brought more La Niñas and more drought, but fewer winter storms and less erosion. In 1949, also a time of less erosion, Pacifica’s government believed homes setback 65 feet from the edge of a bluff would be safe. They never suspected a single El Niño event would move the cliff edge 30 feet landward 50 years later.  

Pacifica California's  eroding coastline

There are some who see human structures as a blight on California’s natural coastline. In response to natural erosion, they suggest we abandon the coast. They argue California’s only choice is “managed retreat” versus “unmanaged retreat”.  Although well engineered seawalls can protect homes and businesses, some environmentalists called seawalls a coastal “crisis”. California’s Coastal Commission recently pledged seawalls will “only be permitted if absolutely necessary”. But the Commission’s policy only fosters a mishmash of emergency fixes. Randomly armored properties deflect destructive waves downstream, accelerating erosion in a neighbor’s unprotected property. Coastal cities must construct well-engineered sea walls, without any gaps.

Because sea walls prevent erosion, the Commission ill-advisedly fears local beaches will be lost if denied locally eroded sand. The Times parroted that belief writing, ‘for every constructed seawall, a beach is sacrificed’. But is that true? San Francisco’s O’Shaughnessy sea wall built in 1929 prevents erosion of the fragile sand dunes supporting Golden Gate Park. Yet SF’s north ocean beach continues to grow. Without a seawall, San Francisco’s south ocean beach rapidly eroded, and threatened infrastructure now requires a sea wall.

Sources of beach sand fluctuate, and simplistic sea wall analyses are very misleading. Sand is stored and transported to beaches in many ways. Streams and rivers supply the most sand needed to nourish a beach, but mining SF bay’s sand has deprived nearby coastal beaches. Furthermore, ocean oscillations shift winds and the direction of currents that transport sand. Beaches grow for decades then suddenly shrink. Although some argue our beaches face a rising sea level “crisis”, archaeologist determined that despite more rapidly rising sea levels 5000 years ago, many California beaches grew when supplied with adequate sand.

Lastly, it’s interesting to note scientists suggested Pacific islands also face an erosion crisis due to rising sea levels. But the latest scientific surveys determined 43% of those islands remained stable while land extent of another 43% has grown. Only 14% of the islands lost land. So, I fear exaggerated crises only erode our trust in science.

Jim Steele is director emeritus of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, SFSU

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Celebrating America’s Environmental Stewardship

published in the Pacifica Tribune July 10,2019

What’s Natural? 

Celebrating America’s Environmental Stewardship

I resent the one-sided mis-characterization of humanity as “destroyers of our environment”. Humans certainly had negative impacts on most ecosystems. However, in contrast to a recent United Nations report insinuating we are threatening one million species with extinction, humans have been working hard to restore nature and prevent further extinctions. Most endangered species are still staggering from disruptions initiated centuries ago. But now humans are correcting past mistakes.

Islands have been extinction hotspots. Sixty-one percent of all known extinctions have occurred on islands and 37% of today’s critically endangered species are found only on islands. The main driver of island extinctions has been purposeful or unintentional introductions of alien species. Introduced species are implicated in 81% of all island extinctions. With no natural predators, Island species did not evolve needed behaviors to avoid introduced rats, cats and stoats.  Researchers now suggest eradication of rats and other introduced mammals could prevent the extinction of up to 75% of threatened island birds, reptiles and mammals. 

Similarly, past introductions of disease decimated island species whose immune systems were ill-prepared to combat alien pathogens. For example, after sailors inadvertently introduced mosquitos into Hawaii in the early 1800s, mosquitos began transmitting avian malaria. By the late 1800s Hawaii’s lowland birds were noticeably disappearing, even in undisturbed habitat. Mosquitos were restricted to warmer lowlands, so cooler high elevations served as a refuge. But high elevation birds regularly migrate to the relative safety of lowland valleys during winter storms, so are still threatened by malaria. Due to landscape changes, introduced predators and introduced diseases, Hawaii became known as the extinction capital of the world. Unfortunately eradicating introduced diseases will be extremely difficult.

Extinct Hawaiian Akialoa lanaiensis

In 1750 Russian fur farmers began introducing red and arctic foxes to the Aleutian Islands. Breeding birds that once thrived in predator-free environments were deemed fox food. By 1811 native Aleuts complained foxes were reducing once abundant seabirds but populations continued to plummet. The Aleutian goose was soon considered extinct until a few pairs were found on 3 fox-free islands. Humans embarked on programs to eradicate introduced foxes allowing seabirds and geese to recover. The Aleutian goose recovery has been so rapid, that along the coast of northern California where the geese winter, they are now considered a pest in local parks.

Arctic Fox

Lost habitat has caused many extinctions, especially species dependent on rapidly disappearing wetlands. For centuries wetlands were being drained and converted to croplands and pastures. However, in the United States that trend is being reversed. Due to more efficient farming methods, the extent of land covered by crops decreased 18% between 1938 and 1992, allowing most of that land to return to more natural habitat. Due to improved wildlife management and incentives to conserve wetlands, wetland-dependent birds have increased by over 30% since 1968. Unfortunately, the incentives to protect wetlands have been counteracted by misguided government subsidies for biofuels in the name of fighting climate change. As a result, some farmers have been enticed to drain their wetlands to grow corn.

The probability of extinction by chance is greatly enhanced when a species’ range is extremely small, and their original abundance is low. Minor habitat disturbances can then cause extinctions. For example, most extinct plant species in California were found in only one or two counties, and due to low abundance were known only from one or two collections.

Nonetheless people are still striving to restore wetlands. We preserve habitat by establishing land trusts. My research prompted restoration of a Sierra Nevada watershed that was initially degraded over 100 years ago. Meadows then stayed wetter during California’s 3-year drought than had been the case before the drought and before restoration. Furthermore, bird populations significantly increased. Colleagues are now restoring other meadows as are several other non-profit organizations. 

The United Nations’ report hyping one million extinctions in the near future should be regarded with extreme suspicion. It engages in fearmongering that only evokes a sense of helplessness. It repeatedly argues their environmental goals for 2030 and beyond “may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.” Their proposed remedy smells of a hidden political agenda. It ignores the tremendous strides humans have taken towards being better environmental stewards. 

Bald Eagle

Our situation is not hopeless. Simply funding the eradication of invasive species on islands would save a significant number of threatened species. America’s regulations have promoted the recovery of several endangered species now listed as species of “least concern”: bald eagleshumpback whalesbrown pelicans and many more. Improved agricultural practices and our efficient economy have allowed more land to convert from cropland back to natural habitat despite feeding a growing human population. Learning from past mistakes, we are now on a trajectory to create win-win situations for both humans and the environment.

Humpback Whale

Jim Steele is retired director of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, SFSU