Malibu Cliffs Could Reduce by up to 130 Feet by 2100

United States Geological Survey

The U.S. Geological Survey last month released a report that could be sobering for beach residents in Malibu and elsewhere. While we’ve heard of global warming, rising sea levels due to melting icebergs and beach loss, the USGS now says Southern California could be losing its cliffs, as well—and at a significant rate. The government agency predicts southland cliffs could reduce by as much as 130 feet by 2100.

Using a computer modeling system that incorporates existing data, scientists predict that with limited human intervention, 31 to 67 percent of Southern California beaches may become completely eroded (up to existing coastal infrastructure or sea-cliffs) in just 80 years under scenarios of sea-level rise of one to two meters. The forecast predicts severe erosion on highways serving cliffside areas such as Palos Verdes Peninsula and suggests coastal cities such as Malibu could be affected with the loss of homes, businesses and parks—cliffside coastal properties—as rising sea levels batter and chip away at land mass.

While it may not occur in any of our lifetimes, our children and grandchildren could be affected by property loss at oceanfront dwellings. Some coastal property owners already face issues with loss of beachfront and are taking steps by shoring up their homes with rock sea walls to prevent further damage. 

The Malibu Times spoke with a 40-year La Costa resident who has witnessed first-hand how the ocean has battered his beachfront home over the years. The resident told TMT that three years ago his flood insurance skyrocketed. 

“The storms are bigger. There is less sand than ever—the last five years especially. It has never come back to previous years’ levels,” he described. “FEMA changed flood control maps—insurance. It is now in the $6,000 range for individual homes and all they cover is $250,000. Two years ago, we had a storm that caused more damage to south-facing beaches. We had tremendous damage on the beach. 

“In four decades, there’s never been anything even close to the erosion we’re seeing now,” he continued. “You can’t tell the sea level is rising, but you can tell in the summer there is less dry beach. In the summertime the dry beach doesn’t go as far out as it used to. Absolutely, the water is rising. There’s erosion of sand.” Saying he’s worried he could lose his home, he emphasized, “It’s the largest invest[ment] for most people.”

One of Malibu’s top real estate agents, Shen Schulz of Sotheby’s International Realty, had a different take when asked if homebuyers seem worried about changing coastal landscapes and if that is affecting sales: “No, it has not.”

“In fact, the sales prices on the beaches in Malibu have been at record highs both in price and volume of sales in 2018,” Schulz continued. “This year we had the $110 million sale of the Peter Morton house on Carbon Beach and a $45 million sale up at Encinal Bluffs. We’ve had multiple beach home sales over $30 million. There has not been a slowdown in any way in the sales in number or prices. Both are increasing.” Addressing loss of sand, Schulz commented, “Sand is seasonal affected by the California current that runs from Alaska down to Cabo San Lucas along the coast and then back out again five miles out to sea from Cabo all the way back up to Alaska in a big circle. That’s called the California current. Some of the sand we have in Malibu is seasonal. It deposits in the spring and early summer. The big swells of Cabo and the south swells from Mexico push it back up from Santa Monica bay onto the beaches of Malibu. In the wintertime it strips sand away typically. It’s seasonal. It comes and goes.” 

Though local public land has been battered by the water, State Parks District Superintendent Craig Sap said it could not be directly attributed to sea level rise.

“We have seen coastal retreat at a few locations, in particular at Leo Carrillo. We’ve lost portions of the parking lot due to storm surge. There is loss of sand as well on the west end,” Sap detailed. “We typically do wave run-up studies to look at future impact that may incur at certain locations.” That would include the Pt. Dume staircase to replace the existing one near the headlands. Sap said it will be moved farther down coast because there’s more sand protection and because it can be constructed at a gentler incline. 

The USGS report was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. Information is also available through the USGS website.