Coastscape: Views of Ocean Change in Santa Cruz, California

Updated: Jan 14

By Sierra Garcia


But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;

The little waves, with their soft, white hands,

Efface the footprints in the sands,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls’


On warm days, the popular beach at Sunny Cove often overflows with hundreds of local families, teenagers, boogie boarders, and dogs. The January 2019 king tide (bottom) effaced the entire beach, reaching a peak of 7 feet above the ‘0’ level.


One bright morning not long after the new year, I woke up early to photograph the sea burying my favourite local beach. On warm summer afternoons, Sunny Cove fills with hundreds of people—children toddling along the waterline, boogie boarders, skimboarders, families picnicking, dogs chasing balls into the surf, teens puffing on joints—all enjoying the narrow beach nestled between two small, sandy cliff faces. I would normally clamber down the rough cliffside stairs to join their ranks. But that Saturday morning the neighborhood slumbered, and the beach was gone. The waves had swallowed it whole.


There was no tsunami or cataclysmic storm: I was witnessing a king tide, the highest tide of the year. King tides happen when the earth swings closest to the sun on its annual cosmic lap of the solar system. The earth, sun, and moon align perfectly and tug in unison on the world’s oceans, exaggerating the daily high and low tides.


I beheld this quiet coup of the sea twice in my hometown of Santa Cruz, California, in December 2018 and again in January 2019. Santa Cruz is a surf town tucked into the northern crook of Monterey Bay on California’s central coast, and our local sea level fluctuates by several feet each day, driven by two daily high and low tides. Like most coastal places, Santa Cruz’s sea level has risen as the planet warms, but local sea level rise has proven slightly slower than the global average of 20cm over the last century.


Despite my constant academic immersal in climate and ocean science, I realized while observing the king tides that I had no concept of what sea level rise could look like in my own community. It’s not a problem of lacking access to the information. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) most recent sea level rise chapter cites nearly five hundred scientific sources spread over sixty-seven pages explaining, in the most painstaking scientific jargon, the ‘whys’, ‘whens’, ‘wheres’, and ‘how muches’ of global and regional sea level rise. Yet these questions are inadequate to illustrate what sea level rise looks and feels like at home for coastal communities like mine — communities that still have the luxury of envisioning sea level rise as a future problem instead of a here-and-now crisis. These king tide photos are my search for a more intuitive and less removed understanding. By observing extremes in the present, and in personally meaningful places, we can more clearly imagine a future in which those extremes have become normal.


***


Eastcliff Drive, which runs from the legendary local surf spot Pleasure Point to Capitola Village. The cliffs that hug most of Santa Cruz’s coastline shape some of the best surfing waves. They also experience sea level change differently than a sandy beach, both visually and physically, because sea level differences are harder to spot against a cliff face compared with a flat beach.





These photos were taken from the same bluffs overlooking Natural Bridges State Beach during both extreme high and extreme low tides. The area was deserted when the king tide arrived (top), but was filled with young families when the low tide revealed the extensive beach and tidepools.


After photographing Sunny Cove, I pursued the king tide down Eastcliff Drive, a cliff-edge road studded with popular surf spots. I stopped at a stairway to the water beside a painted post. It had pegs for abandoned flip flops, and a cheerful sign that read, ‘Lost Soles’. Glancing down the staircase, it was obvious that I couldn’t get much closer. The ocean had claimed the dozen bottommost steps, and with each wave it climbed a few more before flowing back in retreat once again. 


I continued on to Capitola Village, where the cliffs sloped down to a wide, sandy beach protecting a small collection of seaside shops, restaurants, and vacation rentals. Much like Sunny Cove, Capitola Beach had all but disappeared beneath the sea. I wondered if any restaurant-goers arriving that night, long after the king tide receded, would notice the driftwood heaped along the beach’s edge or the damp sand along the sidewalk edge.


Capitola Village buzzes with tourists in the summertime, but was almost deserted at 8:30 AM on a winter Saturday. The king tide splattered driftwood and kelp fragments over the restaurant seating and waterfront walkway where locals often enjoy music and drinks in the evening. There are typically hundreds of feet of beach between this walkway and the water


My final stop on my king tide tour was a late afternoon visit to Natural Bridges State Beach at low tide. Children marveled at the exposed tidepools, and could almost walk on the sand out to the stone arch in the water that is the beach’s namesake. The king tide had come and gone in the early morning before anybody even noticed it, but the extreme low tide that followed drew a small army of delighted explorers out onto the beach.


Listening to their shrieks of excitement, I felt a small pit of nostalgia nestle in my abdomen. In a hundred years, or fifty, or ten, the most extreme low tide will leave a bit more concealed beneath the waves than the lowest lows of this year and the years past. Eventually, children won’t be able to clamber out to those tidepools at all. 


Maybe, I mused, letting that fact penetrate is the key to understanding the local effects of sea level rise in a way that is intuited rather than rationalised. Perhaps we can start with this new nostalgia, that mourns for the present instead of the past.


Families enjoyed the large beach and tide pools exposed by the extreme low tide at Natural Bridges State Beach following the high king tide earlier that day. The difference between the highest and lowest water levels was nearly 8 feet in seven and a half hours--the most extreme difference of the year.


***

While the differences I saw between the extreme and normal water levels in Santa Cruz were dramatic, they did not look catastrophic in the winter morning sunlight. In other places, like low-lying island nations and coastal Florida, king tides make annual headlines as they breach sea walls and cause sunny-day flooding; in Santa Cruz, last year’s king tides came and went almost unnoticed. 


But that may not have been the case if the king tides had combined with a storm surge or strong swell. A disaster tomorrow might require a ‘perfect storm’ of unfortunate conditions all happening at once. An equivalent disaster in ten, twenty, and fifty years, when tides like the ones I photographed will be progressively more common, would only need a 'decent storm' to cause the same damage. The high tides I documented in my photos only happen once a year now, but will soon reach that high and higher on a regular basis. Indeed, that shift is already underway: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that since 1900, extreme high water levels that used to be considered once-a-century events in Santa Cruz now occur once in a decade. 


In coastal communities like mine that have yet to experience devastating harm from sea level rise, it’s tempting to try and conjure this spectre of disaster to motivate action and conversation. The emphasis on the extreme is inherent in how the IPCC communicates predicted trends, how the most shocking hurricane footage lingers in the news, and even in how I framed my photos around the most dramatic tides of the year. It makes sense—people should be paying the most attention to communities and places already grappling with dangerous conditions from climate change impacts.


But as much as climate change is defined by more extremes and more intense extremes, we can’t afford to ignore how it is also fundamentally shifting the meaning of ‘normal’, even (and perhaps especially) on a hyper-local scale. Disasters and extremes matter, unequivocally. But soon, all coastal residents will have to confront the quiet losses that we suffer as the sea erases and changes our familiar coastscapes.

Sierra Garcia is an M.A. candidate at Stanford University studying science communication. You can learn more about king tides and efforts to photograph them on California’s coast at www.coastal.ca.gov/kingtides/

Photography by Sierra Garcia

This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V.

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