Climate impacts on Monterey Bay area beaches

Science Center Objects

For beach towns around Monterey Bay, preserving the beaches by mitigating coastal erosion is vital. Surveys conducted now and regularly in the future will help scientists understand the short- and long-term impacts of climate change, El Niño years, and sea-level rise on a populated and vulnerable coastline.

On a roadway, a large wave washed over the road and broadsided a municipal bus which has a front bike rack with a bike on it.

Waves from an epic storm wash onto the roadway and broadside a bus, hitting the bus hard enough to push it into the oncoming lane. Luckily no one was hurt! (Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Sentinel)


Winter storms modified by future climate changes, including sea-level rise, could mean costly damage to harbors, beaches, and businesses, especially during El Niño years, when atmospheric conditions bring heavy rains to the central California coast. The biggest storms tend to hit later in the year when beaches have already been heavily battered. In a populated area that relies on its coastline for much of its revenue—from people such as surfers, beach goers, sailors, kite surfers, divers, and fisherman—there is a great need to understand how big storms can shape and affect the coast. Perhaps storms will alter an important snowy plover habitat, shift a surf break, or erode natural beach protection for waterfront businesses such as those in Capitola. USGS scientists in Santa Cruz have a rare opportunity to work on these issues close to home and collect data that can affect a range of people and businesses within the Monterey Bay region. Studying these changes now will help researchers create models of future climatic changes that will erode and shape our coasts—a valuable tool for city planners, conservationists, and the tourism industry.

In foreground, man rides a personal watercraft in the water near a beach, in background is an amusement park with carnival rides

 Jackson Currie navigates a personal watercraft towards Santa Cruz's Main Beach, to record bathymetric data along a transect.

View down to beach from coastal bluff looking at an all-terrain vehicle that has left very precise, perpendicular tire tracks.

USGS collects beach topographic data from all-terrain vehicles like this one.

What the USGS is doing

Pelicans and seagulls stand on beach looking disinterested, while a man nearby walks along the beach toward the water.

Alex Snyder gathers topographic data by walking beach transects northwest of Moss Landing to help researchers understand how Monterey Bay will respond to changing environmental conditions.

USGS scientists started baseline mapping from all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), personal watercraft, and by foot from October 20–24, 2014. They used high-precision GPS receivers carried on foot and mounted on ATVs to measure beach and swash-zone elevations (topography). They used GPS receivers and 200-kilohertz echosounders mounted on personal watercraft to measure underwater elevations (bathymetry) along transects roughly two kilometers long and perpendicular to the shore. This initial fieldwork collected a total of 513 kilometers of trackline data along the coast: 219 kilometers of personal-watercraft data, 210 kilometers of ATV data, and 84 kilometers of backpack data, from the famous Santa Cruz Lighthouse/Surfing Museum to Moss Landing.

USGS scientists now conduct regular surveys in the fall and spring each year in the Monterey Bay area, to capture seasonal fluctuations and extreme events - such as flooding from the San Lorenzo River.

Data from these regular beach and nearshore surveys, combined with video camera imagery from strategic beach locations and with tide and wave gauge data attached to local piers, scientists can generate a multi-dimensional view of what’s changing along the coast - now, and over time.

Check out the web cams:

A man walks on the beach wearing a yellow backpack with an antenna sticking up from it, holding a small machine

USGS oceanographer Dan Hoover uses a GPS-equipped backpack to measure sand elevations near the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, California, January 12, 2017. Surveys like this make long-term studies of coastal change possible.

A man wearing safety gear and a warm hat sits in a pontoon boat in very calm water setting up equipment, bridge in background.

On September 28, 2020, marine engineering technician Pete Dal Ferro sets up a newly acquired, portable, single-beam echo sounder on the San Lorenzo River. The new device, called CEESCOPE, collects bathymetric (depth) data and also records features of the subsurface. All the components are easy for one person to set up and operate, with GPS and an LCD touch screen. This day survey is part of the ongoing, seasonal surveys to help characterize the sediment budget of the area.


Adding lidar for detailed mapping

Man stands near and holds onto a large tripod with a lidar instrument mounted on top.

Josh Logan sets up the lidar scanner near Capitola before the December 11, 2014 "Super Soaker" storm.

Lidar stands for Light Detection and Ranging. It is similar to radar but uses laser light instead of radio waves. This instrument rotates 360 degrees and bounces a low-power laser beam safe for the naked eye off everything around it. By measuring the length of time it takes for the light to bounce off an object and return to the scanner, the scanner can capture an accurate three-dimensional measurement of the surrounding surfaces. It is capable of doing this as fast as 122,000 times each second and produces about 10 million points of data in a single rotation.

The scanner is also capable of capturing digital images of its surroundings, which can be overlaid on the points to produce a photo-realistic three-dimensional image comprising millions of points.

Man walks along the sandy edge of a river with very colorfully painted apartments in background.

Reflectors are placed throughout a lidar scan area to help reference where the lidar points are in space. Andrew Stevens, USGS, surveys Capitola Beach, walks past a reflector mounted on a tall, yellow tripod in front of the light blue building.

These millions of points make up a “point cloud” that must be translated into geographic coordinates so that USGS can create a “map” showing super-fine detail of the area it surveyed. To enable this translation, special reflectors placed in different spots on the ground with known GPS coordinates are “seen” by the instrument as it scans. By matching up the scanned reflectors to their real-world coordinates, researchers are able to rotate the entire cloud of points to its real-life layout.

Lidar sees what the human eye can see—up to about a distance of 1,400 meters. At greater distances the measurement process is slower since it takes longer for the light to return. Like the human eye, the scanner can’t see around corners or behind objects so the equipment has to be moved to different spots to create a continous map without large gaps or shadows.

The painstaking process of producing elevation maps from multiple scans and millions of points is most time-consuming when filtering out objects such as buildings, trees, and even seabirds, so they don’t show up as false elevation peaks on the beach. Since the team wants to know how the beach and its elevation changes over time, they can overlay images produced in subsequent years or after large storms to measure the differences.

Lidar has many advantages for gathering fine-scale detail to see, for example, the effects of erosion over time, but sometimes the instrument has difficulty in registering wet objects close to the ground or in the surf zone. To overcome this, the lidar data can be combined with elevation data collected using the other techniques, such as the walking surveys, ATV surveys, and bathymetry surveys.  By combining all of these data, researchers can create a continuous snapshot of the bluffs, beach, surf zone, and offshore.

River mixes with ocean water at beach, sand is piled high in foreground, with seagulls, and brightly colored apartments in back.

Knowing how much sand is removed and returned by big storm events can help show how waterfronts, like this one in Capitola, change with time.

Man jogs on beach, little to no waves are present, man rides personal watercraft offshore, lighthouse sits on jetty at harbor.

A USGS scientist guides a personal watercraft toward Seabright Beach near the Santa Cruz Harbor entrance during bathymetric surveys.


“Climate change may flatten Santa Cruz’s famed surfing waves” — San Jose Mercury News, February 2015

“Climate change may flatten Santa Cruz’s famed waves” — Santa Cruz Sentinel, February 2015

“Mapping Coastal Changes Along Northern Monterey Bay, California, to Aid Planning for Future Storms” — Sound Waves, November/December 2014

“Survey charts Santa Cruz beaches, sandbars” — Santa Cruz Sentinel, November 2014