By Caroline Hemphill

Climate change, and the consequences it will have on Earth’s oceans, coastlines, and storms, is one of the most important issues humanity will face in the coming decades. Understandably, the focus of many activists and environmentalists is turned toward limiting global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. However, we have reached a point where, no matter what happens, some effects of climate change will be felt around the world. That includes our own community at UCSB and in the surrounding areas.

One of the most pressing changes faced by the UCSB community, being so close to the ocean, is sea level rise. As average temperatures rise and glacial ice melts, the sea level is expected to rise, though how much and how quickly will depend on greenhouse gas emissions. Planning for these changes is critical so that people and facilities can adapt to them. This is where the UCSB Sea Level Rise Adaptation Plan comes in. 

The effects that will be experienced on our coastline are a cumulative interaction of sea level rise and other climate change-related extreme events, including increased storm intensity, higher wave events, and extreme flooding and cliff erosion. UCSB’s Sea Level Rise (SLR) Adaptation Plan is a broad overview of how UCSB plans to adapt its buildings, infrastructure, beach access, and natural elements and resources to sea level rise in the coming decades. It addresses problems and necessary actions that will arise in the short term (1-10 years), intermediate term (10-30 years), and long term (30-100 years). It also outlines five different areas that will be affected, including Coal Oil Point Reserve and North Campus Open Space, West Campus Bluffs, the Campus Lagoon, Lagoon Road, and the Goleta Slough. 

For Dr. Charles Lester, a UCSB sea level rise and coastal resilience researcher and advisor, SLR adaptation is a matter of practicality. “Sea level is going to continue to rise,” he said. “For practical purposes, in the next few decades, we need to do this work.” The SLR Adaptation Plan was released for public comment from community members in October, and is now undergoing revisions based on the feedback that was received. The plan will then need approval from the UC Regents and the California Coastal Commission. After that, application of the first stages of the plan will be underway. This includes a variety of different responses, including managed retreat, meaning relocating and adapting facilities, starting with those at the most immediate risk level. The first step of the plan for every one of the five areas, however, is already underway, and that is monitoring.

The SLR Adaptation Plan includes projections of sea level rise based on different levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and temperature. It also includes coastal hazard modeling using tools from the US Geological Survey and Our Coast Our Future (OCOF). Many risks and hazards have been identified using models and projections, including risks to bluffs and sandy beaches, which are critical ecosystems for species such as the endangered Snowy Plover. However, projections are only that, and it is currently uncertain how exactly coastline changes may occur. “We need better, more detailed understandings of what might actually happen,” Dr. Lester explained. “We don’t know exactly how the bluff is going to erode, for example… you could lose ten or fifteen feet in one big event.” Because of this, the SLR plan also calls for long term monitoring of our coastline, which is essential to more detailed planning. “That’s really what the plan is about in the end- anticipating a right action as opposed to being reactive after something happens,” Dr. Lester said. 

Both monitoring and a more detailed analysis will help to determine how different places around campus will need to adapt. For example, at the mouth of the Campus Lagoon, the berm, or raised bank bordering the lagoon from the beach, is at risk due to shoreline erosion. Once the berm goes, there will be significant changes to the lagoon itself, which is an important freshwater resource. In order to do right by the lagoon, Dr. Lester said, we need to study how those changes in habit and hydrology might occur, and how best to deal with them. More focused plans like these are not included in the current SLR Adaptation Plan, and will be part of the monitoring and information gathering phase. 

Lukas Olesinki, a winter 2023 UCSB graduate and a Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI) Fellow, is working on a project to monitor sea level rise and cliff erosion at Coal Oil Point Reserve. The project involves a weather sealed time lapse camera, which can take pictures at specified intervals, being posted on a pole 10 to 20 feet high on the cliffs at coal oil point. The camera will be hooked up to a solar panel and be able to store data for long periods of time that can be uploaded to a server. Inspired by a landmark time lapse of glacial retreat, Lukas hopes to create the first time lapse of sea level rise and coastal erosion. Not only will this data help make better decisions for SLR adaptation, but it will be an invaluable tool for outreach. The striking visualization of sea level rise and coastal erosion will be a tangible example of climate change in action for people who aren’t involved in the planning process. Lukas hopes it will help people understand the dramatic changes that are happening, and inspire them to get involved.

As we learn more about what the scientific side of coastal erosion and sea level rise, and how these changes will look like in our communities, there is work to be done with and for the people living here, too. “Given this change that is coming, which is a substantive change in the status quo… one of the challenges that I think we have is first coming to grips with that, and then doing it together in a way that sets a vision for what we want our future shoreline and communities to look like,” said Dr. Lester. Considering how communities will change with the coastline is essential to the planning process.

Jay Miranda, an undergraduate CNI Fellow at UCSB, echoed this sentiment. Jay is working on an emergency operations project on climate hazards in the intermediate-term future, from the years 2050-2080. This includes identifying at risk groups, and figuring out how to engage them in developing solutions. Isla Vista (IV) has been defined as one of the locations with the highest concentration of  frontline communities in Santa Barbara County’s latest Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. Populations designated as frontline communities are especially important to consider in climate adaptation planning as, due to a variety of different factors, they experience the impacts of climate change faster and more drastically than others. Much of this has to do with the fact that many IV residents are defined as “high risk:” Many are renters, are without vehicles, or are at or below the federal poverty level. This emergency planning will be essential in making sure everybody in our communities stays safe in case of climate-related disasters.

Environmental justice is an essential part of SLR planning. “If we're going to adapt to climate change, we have to really look at why it is that we're having to make these choices,” Jay said. The same structures that have unjustly hurt people and the environment are now putting certain groups at high risk to be further harmed by climate change-caused disasters. People and the environment are interconnected, and helping one can help the other. For example, habitat restoration at Goleta Slough has made the area more flood tolerant, which in turn helps protect community members. Through SLR adaptation, we not only protect ourselves and our facilities, but the habitats around us. 

A major consideration is how we can work to maintain people’s connection to nature, which is important to many community members. While maintaining our current ways of life is important, Jay explains that through adaptation to climate change, we can improve our lives, too. This is another area in which community engagement and assessing people’s needs is essential. Dr. Lester said that a focus on community needs is key in how we look at sea level rise adaptation. “What do we want in our communities? What are the functions we want? What are the values we want?” he said.

Many UCSB students feel that, because their time living here is limited, their input is unimportant. Jay and Dr. Lester want to assure them that this is not the case. “Recognize how we're part of a larger system, both human and environmental,” Dr. Lester advised. “Think about how your actions today are going to play out in not only your longer term future, but in the next generation.” What we do now for SLR adaptation will affect future generations, and even current UCSB and Isla Vista residents are beginning to see changes on our beaches, like cliff erosion. Despite IV being a high risk community when it comes to sea level rise, Jay has noticed a deficit in community engagement. “We have a lot more power in responding to climate change than we think. I think that's pretty inspiring,” he said. That power can only be used if community members are willing to interface with this issue. “In order to adapt as justly as possible, you need as many voices as possible,” Jay said. This issue is not separate from community members: It intrinsically involves them.

Only trying to combat climate change, without considering adaptation, will inevitably leave people behind. We can adapt to the coming changes in a way that will make our communities safer, more accessible, and more resilient, and do justice for the environment in the process.