West Coast
High surf crashes into a rock wall on Capistrano Beach in December. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Destruction from sea level rise in California could exceed worst wildfires and earthquakes, new research shows

In the most extensive study to date on sea level rise in California, researchers say damage by the end of the century could be far more devastating than the worst earthquakes and wildfires in state history.

A team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists concluded that even a modest amount of sea level rise — often dismissed as a creeping, slow-moving disaster — could overwhelm communities when a storm hits at the same time.

The study combines sea level rise and storms for the first time, as well as wave action, cliff erosion, beach loss and other coastal threats across California. These factors have been studied extensively but rarely together in the same model.

The results are sobering. More than half a million Californians and $150 billion in property are at risk of flooding along the coast by 2100 — equivalent to 6% of the state’s GDP, the study found, and on par with Hurricane Katrina and some of the world’s costliest disasters. The number of people exposed is three times greater than previous models that considered only sea level rise.

And at a time when marshes are drowning, cliffs eroding, beaches disappearing and severe storms likely to become more frequent, scientists say even a small shift in sea level rise could launch a new range of extremes that Californians would have to confront every single year.

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