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USGS Analyzes 70 Years of Coastal Cliff Retreat in California

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oblique aerial view of a coastal cliff in Aptos, California
Above: Oblique aerial view of a coastal cliff in Aptos, California, northern Monterey Bay, from the recent USGS report on coastal cliff retreat. Photograph taken by Cheryl Hapke in February 1998, after a major storm had triggered debris slides that damaged several houses at the base of the cliff. [larger version]

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently published a report analyzing coastal cliff retreat along more than 350 km of the California coast over a period of approximately 70 years. Released in May 2007, this study is the first comprehensive assessment of the State's historical coastal cliff retreat.

Findings indicate that the average annual coastal cliff retreat in California is 0.3 m/yr, with an average retreat of 17.7 m over the 70-yr period of the assessment (1930s to 1998 or 2002, depending on the stretch of coast). Cliff retreat tends to be focused in "erosion hotspots." The greatest amount of retreat in the State over the 70-yr period was 223 m at a large coastal landslide near Cape Vizcaino in northern California (the area from the California-Oregon border south to Point Reyes). The maximum amount of retreat in central California (south from Point Reyes to just north of Santa Barbara) was 211 m, measured just north of Pillar Point Harbor (this was also the second-highest value for retreat in the State over the 70-yr period). The highest amount of retreat in southern California, 115 m, occurred near Santa Monica at the site of the Big Rock Mesa landslide. All of the highest retreat rates occurred in areas characterized by large coastal landslides. Retreat rates were also found to be high in cliffs formed of weaker rock and at dominant headlands, such as Point Arena, Bodega Head, Point Reyes, Pillar Point, Point Sal, and Point Loma.

"Coastal cliff retreat is a serious and chronic coastal hazard along California's coast," said Cheryl Hapke of the USGS and lead author of the report. Many analyses of cliff retreat have been conducted along the California coast, but they covered only small, specific areas and used different methods with varying accuracies, making it difficult to compare retreat hazards from one area to the next. The USGS study, the first comprehensive quantification of coastal cliff retreat in California, included the development of repeatable methodologies that use both historical data and modern state-of-the-art lidar (light detection and ranging) data. The database is designed to be expandable as additional data become available in the future.

Produced as part of the National Assessment of Shoreline Change, the new report is titled "The National Assessment of Shoreline Change, Part 4: Historical Coastal Cliff Retreat along the California Coast" (USGS Open-File Report 2007-1133). A companion volume offers data that can be used in geographic-information-system (GIS) applications and is titled "The National Assessment of Shoreline Change: A GIS Compilation of Vector Cliff Edges and Associated Cliff Erosion Data for the California Coast" (USGS Open-File Report 2007-1112).

These reports will be used by State and local agencies for planning and regulatory applications and by the scientific community for coastal-hazard assessments.

A few days after these reports were published, Hapke spoke at the Coastal Sediments 07 conference (URL http://www.asce.org/conferences/cs07/index.cfm) in New Orleans, Louisiana (May 13-17), comparing the newly released coastal-cliff-retreat data with shoreline-change data from California's sandy shorelines, published in a USGS report last fall titled "Historical Shoreline Change and Associated Coastal Land Loss Along Sandy Shorelines of the California Coast" (USGS Open-File Report 2006-1219).

Related Web Sites
The National Assessment of Shoreline Change, Part 4: Historical Coastal Cliff Retreat along the California Coast - USGS Open-File Report 2007-1133
USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)
The National Assessment of Shoreline Change: A GIS Compilation of Vector Cliff Edges and Associated Cliff Erosion Data for the California Coast - USGS Open-File Report 2007-1112
USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)
Historical Shoreline Change and Associated Coastal Land Loss Along Sandy Shorelines of the California Coast - USGS Open-File Report 2006-1219
USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)

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Research
cover story:
Newly-Discovered Fossil Sponges

Outreach Public Lecture: Alchemy in the Abyss

USGS at Florida's Marine Quest

College Students Introduced to USGS Studies

Meetings Potential Impacts of Future Sea-Level Rise

Onshore-Offshore Geologic Map Workshop

Publications High-Resolution Map Merges Tampa Bay Bathymetry and Topography

70 Years of Coastal Cliff Retreat in California

July Publications List


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