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'Losing battle?' Calif. sea level rising

December 11, 2007 12:00:00 AM PST
Are California's beaches shrinking? According to a recent EPA report, the sea level is rising along most of the U.S. coastlines. So what does that mean for Southern California?California's 1,100 miles of coastline is home to some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

"Now, if the sea level rises 35 inches, the houses along Malibu will definitely be something of the past," said JPL climatologist Bill Patzert.

Scientists associate two major factors with the accelerated rate of sea level rise. One, the warming of our oceans -- heat causes water to expand. And two, the melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

Greenland's largest glacier is melting twice as fast today as it was five years ago. The ice this one glacier dumps out in just one day holds as much water as New York City uses in a year.

"Most of the fresh water in the world is stored in Antarctica and Greenland. If all that ice melted, sea level would rise more than 300 feet across the planet, and Staples Center would definitely be underwater," said Patzert.

That's a worst-case scenario. But scientists agree California can count on up to three feet of sea level rise before the end of this century.

Some scientists now believe it will be much worse. Their projections look at the possibility by the second half of this century, or maybe sooner, some low-lying U.S. cities could be underwater.

It takes only three feet of sea level rise to swamp low-lying cities like Hollywood, Florida. In a more drastic scenario, Marina Del Rey and Santa Monica is underwater after10 to 20 feet of sea level rise. Newport Beach is drowned by a potential five-to-six foot rise in sea level.

"In relatively short geological time, those structures are probably doomed," said climate researcher Dan Cayan of the Scripps Institute & USGS.

Climatologist Dan Cayan contributed to a report commissioned by Governor Schwarzenegger examining the potential impacts of climate change on California.

"In some sense, these structures that are built along extreme low-lying areas area are a losing battle," said Cayan.

Combine California's periodic El Ninos with sea level rise, and the consequences could be severe.

"It's not the gentle sea level rise that's going to do us in along the coast, but it's when those rises are coupled with big storms and high tides," said Cayan.

"You're definitely looking at a changing coastal landscape, a landscape you probably will not recognize," said Patzert.

Sea level rise will threaten infrastructure along our coast, from the railroad tracks in San Clemente to the L.A. port and California's famed Pacific Coast Highway.

"PCH could be something for the history books," said Patzert.

Tourism is another big factor. One estimate puts California's coastal tourism industry at $14 billion a year. No beach means a lot less tourists.

That's why dozens of beach communities spend millions of dollars on beach nourishment programs, like one in Oceanside. They're restoring the width of the beach and moving tons of sand from the bottom of the harbor to the slowly shrinking coastline.

In Newport Beach, the Harbor Commission is looking at what rising sea levels could mean for thousands of waterfront homes.

"In Newport Beach, there is billions and billions with a 'B' worth of real estate," said Ralph Rodheim of the Newport City Harbor Commission. "So it's a major, major economic impact."

The Harbor Commission may require homeowners to raise the height of existing sea walls over time to protect homes and the city's economic interests.

"Remember this is a vacation spot," said Rodheim. "People come from all over the world to rent homes, rent hotels."

It's a vacation spot that may eventually be lost before our eyes.

Some city officials aren't waiting for more drastic changes. For example, in Newport Beach, the harbor commission is looking at what rising sea levels might mean for thousands of waterfront homes. They may require homeowners to raise the height of existing sea walls over time.

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