“Our admiration for the piers is under threat from storms and increasing sea levels in California’s coastal areas.”
California’s historical piers, which have been a staple of the Pacific coast since the Gold Rush, are facing significant damage from severe storms, sea level rise, and large waves. These beach landmarks, which are an integral part of the landscape, are now at their greatest risk.
Several public piers, damaged by a series of severe storms in the past year, have been forced to close. The repair expenses have reached millions of dollars.
Among those shuttered is the pier in Capitola built in 1857 that predates the northern California town and is a popular spot to watch passing whales and dolphins. Another damaged by storms in San Diego, the Ocean Beach pier, offers a bird’s-eye view of surfers carving waves below.
There is a higher chance of increased damage this year due to El Niño, a weather phenomenon that brings extra storms to California by temporarily warming parts of the Pacific Ocean and altering global weather patterns. This week, consecutive atmospheric river storms have been hitting California, resulting in flooded roads, fallen trees, and traffic incidents. The second storm, nicknamed the “pineapple express” because it originates near Hawaii and brings a plume of moisture across the Pacific, is expected to arrive on Saturday night and bring a stronger storm.
On Sunday and Monday, there is a possibility of severe flooding in southern California, particularly in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
The National Weather Service in Los Angeles issued a warning that there is a growing likelihood of a prolonged period of intense rainfall starting late Saturday night and lasting through most of Sunday and Monday.
Due to the already saturated grounds, the NWS cautioned that flash flooding could happen at a faster rate. The NWS advised everyone, particularly those in or near south facing mountains, to begin preparing for potential evacuations before or during the storm on Thursday.
Municipal engineers are considering reconfiguring docks to endure larger waves due to the increase in ocean levels. Some may need to be relocated or eliminated altogether.
Mike Beck, director of the Center for Coastal Climate Resilience at the University of California, Santa Cruz, acknowledged that we are currently in a different environment. He emphasized that we cannot simply rebuild in the same locations and methods as before. Instead, we must carefully consider our design choices and placement of structures.
Many piers have been extensively fixed due to various causes like fires and erosion. However, authorities claim that they are currently experiencing damage at an unprecedented speed.
In late December, waves reaching over 20 feet (6 meters) in height caused significant damage to the 855-foot (260.6-meter) Capitola wharf in Santa Cruz county. This occurred just months after a strong storm in January 2023, known as the “pineapple express,” caused a portion of the wharf to collapse. Unlike traditional wharves that run parallel to the shore, the Capitola wharf is considered a pier in nautical terms because it runs perpendicular to the shore.
The Ocean Beach pier in San Diego, which is made of concrete and stretches almost 2,000 feet (609.6 meters), was constructed in 1966. It has faced multiple instances of damage since 2019. Despite ongoing repairs from previous incidents of rough waves, the pier was hit once again in January by a massive swell that caused one of its pilings to be washed away.
The city is considering replacing the current structure, having already invested over $1.7 million in repairs within the last five years. They have received $8.4 million in state funding for a replacement. One of the three proposed designs features interconnected pathways, offering a unique appearance.
The pier located at Seacliff State Beach in Santa Cruz county, California, was destroyed by the state park service following a severe storm surge in January 2023. The pier, which was 93 years old, was split in half by the powerful waves.
Beck stated that communities are facing the question of whether they have the financial means to maintain their piers. This task would require higher and sturdier pilings, potentially altering the traditional appearance to a more industrial one.
These discussions can be difficult for those who hold the piers in high regard.
“In California, we have a unique fondness for our piers,” he remarked.
For years, these structures have offered families, fishermen, tourists, and others the chance to peacefully admire the ocean without getting soaked.
The earliest piers in California were essential for the transportation of goods via steamships to remote settlements that did not have access to railroads. These piers were crucial for the delivery of materials such as lumber, bricks, and cement. As time passed, new piers were constructed for leisure purposes, such as the Santa Monica pier. This particular pier boasts an amusement park and is home to the world’s first solar-powered Ferris wheel.
In December, repairs were already being done on Ventura’s pier due to the storms in January 2023. However, a large swell around New Year’s Eve, which caused damage to San Diego’s pier, also destroyed or harmed 19 pilings that supported Ventura’s pier.
According to research, global warming is resulting in higher sea levels and larger waves along the coast of California. This season is also experiencing some of the highest tides.
“We are witnessing a convergence of various factors that are all coming together. This trend is expected to continue,” stated Beck. “In addition, during an El Niño year, we can also expect to see a rise in sea levels, surpassing the predicted long-term increases due to sea level rise.”
Last year, while evaluating the extensive storm damage in California, President Joe Biden stated that rebuilding efforts are being hindered by global warming.
According to Jessica Kahn, the director of public works for Capitola, the $8 million pier project, set to be finished this autumn, has considered the effects of climate change.
“The city experimented with various iterations, designs, and strategies in order to enhance the resilience of the wharf. Ultimately, they decided to widen the wharf and increase the number of pilings from three to six in the narrower section of the trestle,” she stated.
The new supports will be adjustable to accommodate rising sea levels.
Throughout the years, Inge Jechart has dedicated moments to observing from the pier as schools of anchovies are pursued by seals while birds fly above.
While it is being repaired, she stands on a high point to observe the work crews.
She expressed confidence in their ability to succeed, despite the increase in severe weather and changing climate. She believes that with proper planning, the project can have a lasting impact and bring the community closer together. She also emphasized the value and enjoyment that people experience while walking in the area.