Sonoma County’s coastal cliffs, softened by rain and pounded by ocean waves, are receding by as much as a foot a year and will surrender an area the size of Sebastopol by the end of the century, experts say, as climate change prompts sea levels to continue rising.
The scenic cliffs, made of soft rock formed millions of years ago on the ocean floor, are no match for nature’s ceaseless forces. Related property loss in the county over that period could total as much as $700 million.
Statewide, eroding coastal cliffs threaten billions of dollars worth of homes, highways, railways, businesses, military bases, universities, power plants and parks, and the North Bay has already seen the destructive and deadly consequences of the diminishing coastline.
At Gleason Beach, 4 miles north of Bodega Bay on Highway 1, the rapidly eroding cliff irreparably damaged 10 blufftop homes that were demolished by the owners, the last one in November.
One other home was relocated, and two of the 10 remaining homes are uninhabitable or unstable.
“Gleason Beach is a bellwether of things to come,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district covers the county’s entire coast. “It’s one of the fastest eroding places in California.”
Caltrans is currently planning a $26 million realignment of the coastal highway at Gleason Beach, moving nearly a mile of the roadway, and building a new 850-foot bridge, about 400 feet farther away from the restive ocean. Construction is expected to start in 2019.
It’s an effort fraught with uncertainty, given the difficulty of predicting future erosion rates in a complex natural system that includes rising sea levels, a symptom of climate change.
“We’re hoping we’ve moved the road back far enough,” said Lesley Ewing, a senior coastal engineer with the California Coastal Commission.
County planners, meanwhile, are revising coastal development standards that will require new structures to be set back from the bluffs a distance based on the conditions at each site.
The policy proposal is “intended to avoid development which would result in unacceptable risks to the residents, visitors, private property and public facilities” on the coast, according to the county.
A new study featuring high-tech measurements of the state’s retreating coastal cliffs said it’s going to be difficult to stay out of nature’s relentless path.
“These problems will worsen as sea levels and coastal populations increase, and effectively managing California’s changing coast will become increasingly challenging,” said the study by Adam Young, a project scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.
His study, published this month in the journal Geomorphology, used images from airborne laser scanning — known as Lidar — to measure changes in segments of the coastline from the Mexican border to Bodega Head over an 11-year period ending in 2009.
Significant erosion was found on 44 percent of the shoreline evaluated, with cliff tops retreating as much as 14 feet a year.
A 3,300-foot stretch of cliff on the Sonoma coast south of Bodega Head receded by one foot a year, three times the average rate, but Young said it was too small a sample to apply to the entire county.
His study stopped at Bodega Head, a rocky mass resistant to erosion, because the data going north were “pretty spotty,” Young said.