CA - San Diego's Coastal Concerns: That’s the Way the Cliffside Crumbles

Living with sea level rise presents challenges to maintaining public infrastructure and private property in San Diego.

When you think of Del Mar, California, the railway is likely not the first thing to come to mind. An affluent locale just north of San Diego, Del Mar is a sleepy coastal town known for its beach breaks and celebrity residents, coming to life every summer with the San Diego County Fair and annual horse racing season. Unless you’re a commuter trying to beat the freeway traffic on the I-5, odds are the railway is just a minor inconvenience, a brief lapse in the tranquil sounds of crashing waves when an Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train thunders past the beach.

Long before the days of oceanfront properties and beachside getaways, the California Southern Railroad laid tracks north from San Diego Bay with the intent of connecting with the Atlantic and Pacific Railroads to create a transcontinental line. It passed Del Mar on Railroad Avenue, today’s Stratford Court, where a depot was located around present-day 9th Street, and continued along the coast to Oceanside, forming the Los Angeles-San Diego short line railroad. In 1909, the Santa Fe Railway company obtained the right of way to reroute the tracks in and around Del Mar, and a new line was laid along the blufftop. As soon as the first train passed over the newly completed railway in 1910, challenges to the blufftop route were evident. Engineers built a retaining wall over 80 feet in length in order to address drainage challenges from the cliffs, and constructed an earthen embankment above the wall where the tracks were laid. Since 1910, three trains have fallen to the beach, the most recent event occurring in 1941. Heavy rains softened the roadbed on the embankment and a northbound freight train slid down toward the beach, resulting in three deaths. This was the most recent train wreck on the Del Mar bluffs, but constant erosion and dramatic bluff collapses in the past century have reemphasized the gamble of building on the cliffs, and it’s almost certain that the railroad will be moved again.

Train wreck on the Del Mar bluffs on New Year’s Eve, 1940 (Photo courtesy of DMVA Historical Committee)

Any good climate story these days possesses an element of attribution science — this field, largely used in climate studies, seeks to measure how ongoing climate change is directly impacting extreme weather events. But declaring something a product of climate change is never quite so simple. In the City of Del Mar, there are no winners and losers. Just a community of people trying their best to deal with a hand that’s already been dealt. Dr. Adam Young, a coastal processes scientist at San Diego’s globally-renowned research establishment, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is leading the charge: “I get asked all the time when a landslide happens, is it climate change? The answer is, we don’t know really, the cliffs have been eroding for thousands of years,” he said. “Can you attribute that specific event to climate change? It’s not that simple.” Public infrastructure has dotted the bluff for the past century, and coastal property is in as high demand as ever. Consumptive practices and fossil fuel emissions have set major changes to our environment in motion, only to be compounded by natural phenomena and the intricacies of local, state, and federal policymaking. The ocean has been eating away at the coast for centuries, yet we continue to build.

Every day, people traipse up and down the leveled sandstone at the top of the bluffs, casually crossing over the rusted railroad tracks and smoothing out a blanket mere inches away from the cliff’s edge for the world’s most dangerous picnic. Joggers, ears plugged shut with Apple AirPods, are everywhere you look, and visored walkers stride briskly alongside the tracks. The air changes before the train approaches, a subtle tinny sound fills the air, and the train rushes by. The temporary but violent shattering of the peaceful morning is soon forgotten as surfers, hefting colorful boards, pick their way across the rails to the sparsely-populated surf breaks of South Del Mar. On the beach several stories below, signs stick out of cliff-clinging vegetation and piles of debris from previous bluff failures, cautioning beachgoers of the danger of falling rocks — a euphemistically-phrased warning to remind passersby to mind their distance from the towering bluffs overhead. Del Mar is, so to speak, a city clinging to the calm before the storm.

Read more.