CA - Retreating Shorelines: What California Can Teach Us
As climate change brings rising seas, more extreme storms, and increased flooding, coastal communities need to act—or risk disappearing, a new book says
In her first book, "California Against the Sea," Los Angeles Times reporter Rosanna Xia chronicles the threat of rising tides with nuanced stories about how climate change is destroying the state's 1,200-mile coastline and underscores the urgency of collective, future-focused action, now.
Rosanna Xia, A11, an environment reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has traveled California’s 1,200-mile coast to learn how people living on the threatened shoreline are responding to the effects of climate change. The result is her first book. California Against the Sea: Vision for Our Vanishing Coastline (Heyday).
The book could not be more timely, arriving in tandem with climate-related reports of the hottest summer on record—a sweltering summer for the entire Northern Hemisphere—and the release of a report by the U.S. Geological Survey that predicts rising tides could erode up to 75 percent of California's beaches by 2100.
That beaches are vanishing, that they are being beaten back by an expanding, warming ocean, is well known to Xia. In 2020, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for explanatory reporting about the disappearing California coast. She shared the distinction with Swetha Kannan and data reporter Terry Castleman, E16, who created an accompanying game, The sea is rising, can you save your town?
KQED / October 22, 2023
For most shoreline communities, rising sea levels are daunting, and often divisive. Xia offers a close look at the full spectrum of sea-level responses, insights, and concerns as expressed by professionals, elected officials, and citizens.
She visits with people like Gary Griggs, an oceanographer and coastal geologist, who muses on the impermanence of the colorful beach town of Capitola, as it experiences severe cliff erosion, and people like Mayor John Keener in Pacifica, where the most recent El Niño season cost $16 million, “no small change for a town whose $36 million operating budget relies mostly on property taxes.” And people like Sara Cuadra, the Bay Foundation’s “plant whisperer,” who is trying to bring back disappearing dunes by planting seeds that will “one day bloom into red sand verbena.”
Xia uses those personal stories to vividly render climate change in California. “People remember stories better than data points,” she says, sharing a guiding principle that goes back to her first reporting assignments writing about Chinese-speaking communities. “I’ve noticed this greater awakening within climate journalism: You have to tend to not just the intellectual journey of the reader—but also the emotional journey,” she says. “And with a book, it’s also thinking about the philosophical journey: What does it mean for all of us as we look to the future?”
The California coast is a long way from where Xia grew up, in the Boston suburb of Boxborough. A quantitative economics and international studies double major at Tufts, she would find her true calling in a Communications and Media Studies minor that translated her “innate love of learning and writing” into a potential career. She jump started that career 13 years ago with a Dow Jones News Fund summer internship at the LA Times, and after graduation was hired into a six-month training program.
With the LA Times recently expanding its coverage of climate change through a new section called California Climate, she is now one of many reporters covering the state’s “consequences of climate change: floods, droughts, wildfires, sea-level rise, and extreme weather.”
Xia returned to Tufts in September to give a Hoch Cunningham Environmental Lecture and speak with students about environmental writing and her non-linear path to journalism. (A former star sprinter and captain of the women’s varsity track and field team, she also dropped by the office of her former coach, Kristen Morwick.) She also took time to talk with Tufts Now about her work and the lessons we can learn from California’s reckoning with rising tides.
Tufts Now: This book was a big undertaking; what prompted you to write it?
Rosanna Xia: My hope with this book is that it would help guide and deepen the conversation not just about sea level rise, but also about the systems—political, economic, and social—that got us into this situation in the first place. Having a book-length project to explore some of the intersections between climate change and social change has been really powerful.
As you thought about writing a book, what was most important to you?
I asked myself: Who is missing from this conversation? Who has been overlooked? Who should be part of this conversation if only we knew how to frame it in a more inclusive, expansive way?
Going beyond just science and policy, Indigenous wisdom is really important. I wanted to weave Indigenous knowledge into a conversation that has been so grounded in Western science—and in a way that doesn’t show them in conflict with each other, but in conversation with each other.
I also hope to reset the way we think about the ocean. The ocean is alive. It has a spirit. It’s something that gives us great joy when we're going to the beach, but it is also a force that needs to be respected.
The science behind sea level rise seems urgent and yet I wonder if most people grasp the facts behind the rising tides.
What is important to understand is that our reliance on carbon fuels has been heating up our oceans with greater and greater intensity. The ocean covers more than 70 percent of our planet and has absorbed about 90% of the excess heat from our excess carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution. That warming has been devastating to marine life, and coastal communities are increasingly in the way of this rising, overheating water. Off the California coast, we’re looking at possibly six or seven feet of sea level rise by end of century if we continue business as usual.
A theme running through the book is the tension between the sea and people. As you write, much of the California coastline is populated but “the rising sea is once again demanding change.” How do we change? Or can we?
We have a hard reality check to reckon with in terms of our built environment and how we’ve hardened the shoreline. Resetting our relationship with the ocean is not going to be easy. There’s a chapter, for example, where I look at San Francisco and how so much of the city’s bay side was built on top of a former marsh. We drained it, filled it up, and built a gigantic wall to hold back the bay. But now the water is trying to move back in. For a city as iconic as San Francisco, are we really going to let the city go?