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Influence of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events on the evolution of central California's shoreline

July 25, 2013

Significant sea-cliff erosion and storm damage occurred along the central coast of California during the 1982–1983 and 1997–1998 El Niño winters. This generated interest among scientists and land-use planners in how historic El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) winters have affected the coastal climate of central California. A relative ENSO intensity index based on oceanographic and meteorologic data defines the timing and magnitude of ENSO events over the past century. The index suggests that five higher intensity (relative values 4–6) and 17 lower intensity (relative values 1–3) ENSO events took place between 1910 and 1995. The ENSO intensity index correlates with fluctuations in the time series of cyclone activity, precipitation, detrended sea level, wave height, sea-surface temperature, and sea-level barometric pressure. Wave height, sea level, and precipitation, which are the primary external forcing parameters in sea-cliff erosion, increase nonlinearly with increasing relative ENSO event intensity. The number of storms that caused coastal erosion or storm damage and the historic occurrence of large-scale sea-cliff erosion along the central coast also increase nonlinearly with increasing relative event intensity. These correlations and the frequency distribution of relative ENSO event intensities indicate that moderate- to high-intensity ENSO events cause the most sea-cliff erosion and shoreline recession over the course of a century.