Defending Our Coastline 
FROM Rising Seas

Discover how the CSU is working to mitigate the threat
 of sea level rise on California's Coastal Lands.

Across the state, from Humboldt to Long Beach, California State University faculty are working to find solutions to the inevitable crisis of sea level rise, while training the next generation of scientists, researchers and conservationists.

A recent state-commissioned report by the California Ocean Protection Council warns that if drastic changes aren't made, California's coastal waters will rise at a rate 30 to 40 times faster than in the last century. Additionally, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that without concerted intervention, as much as 67 percent of Southern California's beaches could be lost to rising seas by​ the end of the century.


"Sea level rise is the ocean's response to climate change," says Laurie Richmond, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental planning at Humboldt State. "As the Earth's temperature rises, thermal expansion of water molecules and melting ice caps in the poles is making the ocean bigger."

Humboldt Bay is experiencing sea level rise at a faster rate than anywhere on the west coast, and faster than most places in the world. Because much of the bay has been diked off to create agricultural land, coupled with the fact that it is located on a subduction zone — a location where two tectonic plates meets and one slides beneath the other  the land isn't getting higher as the sea level rises, which is what typically happens to most other coasts.

"A lot of the areas that are projected to be inundated with water as the sea level rises are strategically important, like residential areas, gas and electric lines, highways and wastewater treatment plants," says Richmond.

Humboldt Bay is experiencing a faster rate of sea level rise than any other location on the west coast.


One of these treatment plants is the Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant, which includes the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary and treats all of Arcata's water. Eileen Cashman, Ph.D., a professor in the department of Environmental Resources Engineering at HSU, chose to address the challenges facing this area in a senior capstone project for her undergraduate students.

Cashman's students were tasked with creating ways to protect the marsh and explore the use of living shorelines, which are soft barriers made of natural material including vegetation, oyster reefs and the slope of the land.

"The idea is that you design them so the structure of the shoreline captures sediment and the land rises as the sea level moves in," says Cashman. "The students in my capstone class do really great feasibility research and preliminary design work and it gives the agencies and clients we work with information to actually pursue grants for some of these solutions."

Following the project's end, the city of Arcata, which owns and operates the treatment plant, obtained funding to implement a pilot project that may provide the city with an alternative to relocating the plant.

Coastal wetlands protect communities of plant and marine life, as well as residential communities and infrastructure.


Cal State Long Beach professor Christine Whitcraft, Ph.D., is researching how human activities and climate change impact the structure and function of wetlands through her Wetlands Ecology Lab, where she invites graduate and undergraduate students to help her and perform their own projects.

"That's one of the real advantages of attending a CSU," says Whitcraft. "We offer opportunities for students to get engaged with research at an undergraduate level and feel like they're making a difference in their communities."

Wetlands play a vital role in mitigating the effects of sea level rise because they are the first line of defense for many areas. They protect roads, residential areas and communities of plant and marine life that are important to the ecosystem.

"Coastal wetlands are going to be one of the first ecosystems affected by sea level rise," says Whitcraft. "They're going to be the canary in the coal mine for sea level rise."

Coastal wetlands are going to be one of the first ecosystems affected by sea level rise. 
They’re going to be the canary in the coal mine.​

In 2016, Whitcraft and a team of scientists, engineers and managers organized a large-scale sediment augmentation project in the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge to rebuild nesting areas for an endangered bird species and help bolster the area against sea level rise. 

Since the project's completion, Whitcraft and her students have monitored the marsh for signs of recovery. The results so far have been promising: Plants are starting to regrow and animal life is beginning to re-colonize, showing that the project may be a viable long-term solution to sea level rise. 

Cal State Channel Islands professor Kiki Patsch's students collect important data at beaches across Southern California.

Channel Islands uses technology to monitor coastal erosion

Cal State Channel Islands Assistant Professor of environmental science and resource management Kiki Patsch is working on several projects through her lab, The Sandshed, aimed at building a coastal collective in collaboration with faculty in several other departments.

One of her recent projects, the Beach Sustainability Project, is developing ways to rapidly assess California's beaches. Patsch and her students go out every summer to collect data like recreational value and ecological benefits that give a clearer picture of which beaches serve which purposes.

"As sea level continues to rise, we're going to have some really hard decisions to make about which beaches to save," says Patsch. "With this data all in one place, we can better decide which beaches to reinforce as storm buffers, which beaches to manage for ecology purposes, and so on."

Patsch has developed a mobile application that students will take into the field this summer to help collect and organize this data. The hope is that they will soon be able to roll it out to the public and create a sort of "Citizen Science" project in which people up and down the state will contribute to painting a clearer picture of how California's coasts are adapting to sea level rise. 


Faculty and students continue to look for ways to help mitigate the effects of sea level rise through research that will help inform policy makers on the importance of identifying and allocating resources.

At HSU, a group of faculty members have launched the Sea Level Rise Initiative through the campus' Marine and Coastal Sciences Lab, which aims to inform policy makers on possible solutions to sea level rise. Members are also working to inform the public on the potential impact to their communities, especially in lower socioeconomic areas that may be disproportionately affected.

The CSU's Council on Ocean Affairs, Science & Technology (COAST) has been working for the past decade to advance the knowledge of marine and coastal resources and the processes that affect them. COAST supports CSU faculty members and students engaged in marine, coastal and coastal watershed-related research and activities and works to connect members with stakeholders at all levels to promote informed decision-making.

Participating in unique research opportunities that benefit California such as the programs at HSU, CSULB and CSUCI — is a high-impact practice that directly correlates with higher retention rates. It is a key facet of the CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025, which aims to provide the graduates needed to power California's economy.

Story: ALISIA RUBLE   |   PHOTOGRAPHY: PATRICK RECORD, Kellie Brown, Kiki Patsch

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