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The impacts of the 2015/2016 El Niño on California's sandy beaches

December 23, 2020

The El Niño Southern Oscillation is the most dominant mode of interannual climate variability in the Pacific. The 2015/2016 El Niño event was one of the strongest of the last 145 years, resulting in anomalously high wave energy across the U.S. West Coast, and record coastal erosion for many California beaches. To better manage coastal resources, it is critical to understand the impacts of both short-term climate variability and long-term climate impacts across the varied coastal settings of California. This study is the first to quantify the coastal response for one of the strongest El Niño events in the historical record across the coast of California through the analysis of nearshore wave conditions and seasonal beach changes for 8000 shore-normal transects. Through the analysis of pre- and post- El Niño LiDAR, we find that that central and northern California experienced the most sandy beach shoreline retreat/erosion during the El Niño winter, with a mean of 45.7 m of erosion (96% of beaches) in central California, a mean of 25.5 m of erosion (89% of beaches) in northern California, and a mean of 9.7 m of erosion (79% of beaches) in southern California. These patterns are compared to LiDAR and satellite-derived long-term shoreline change rates, in which southern California and central California beaches are moderately accreting, while northern California is eroding at an average of 79 cm per year. A significant correlation is found between cumulative wave energy flux and shoreline change during the El Niño winter across the state of California. Although local beach response during the El Niño winter was highly variable, heightened erosion was observed at river mouths and on the southern side of structures impeding littoral drift, with accretion observed on the northern side of these structures. These erosional patterns, driven by a northerly wave direction anomaly, contrast those of classic El Niño events such as the 1982–.83 and 1997–98 events, where more southerly storm tracks and southerly wave directions were key factors controlling shoreline behavior, and may indicate a shift in El Niño storm patterns driven by climate change.

Publication Year 2021
Title The impacts of the 2015/2016 El Niño on California's sandy beaches
DOI 10.1016/j.geomorph.2020.107583
Authors Schuyler A Smith, Patrick L. Barnard
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geomorphology
Index ID 70217371
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center