‘I have never seen anything this dramatic’: Santa Cruz’s most-tenured ocean observer in awe of storm damage

A sinkhole that opened up on West Cliff Drive after fierce storms on Thursday, January 5, 2023.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“This storm is going to show we need to make decisions,” said UC Santa Cruz scientist Gary Griggs, who has observed the coast for more than 50 years. The storm caused parts of West Cliff Drive to completely collapse onto the shore leaving gaping holes – in one spot up to 20 feet long – where people walked just a day before.

West Cliff Drive won’t look the same for some time after large waves and high tide conditions converged on the vulnerable portion of Santa Cruz’s iconic coastline.

Large rocks, pieces of broken fencing, slabs of cement and other debris covered the cliffside roadway. The storm caused parts of West Cliff Drive to completely collapse onto the shore leaving gaping holes – in one spot up to 20 feet long – where people walked just a day before.

“I have never seen anything this dramatic,” said UC Santa Cruz scientist Gary Griggs, who has observed the coast for more than 50 years.

He lives just a few blocks from West Cliff Drive, where crowds of people flocked to observe the relentless swell – against the advice of law enforcement.

In some areas, waves crashed into the coast and brought large rocks onto roads, leading the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and city of Santa Cruz officials to ask the public to keep their distance. Law enforcement closed down West Cliff Drive between Pelton and Almar avenues due to significant erosion of the road and paths along the cliff.

“While we understand the desire to see the impacts, it is not worth the risk,” the sheriff’s office wrote on social media. The area is closed until further notice.

UCSC's Gary Griggs uses this slide to illustrate the different geological formations that make up West Cliff Drive.
(Via Gary Griggs)

The closed-off bluffs and cliffs along West Cliff Drive are composed of vulnerable material that make it more susceptible to erosion, unlike the area just north which is made up of stronger mudstone, according to Griggs.

Just over one month ago, a portion of the same area broke off and fell into the ocean. Griggs said erosion along the coastline has been happening for centuries, but the worsening impacts of climate change are exacerbating the issue – something the City of Santa Cruz has been working on.

In 2021, the city adopted a report on options for adapting to sea level rise for West Cliff Drive and Griggs said the California Coastal Commission is still reviewing that plan.

“This storm is going to show we need to make decisions,” said Griggs, adding there are essentially two options for moving forward.

SPC Magowan and SPC Ortiz from the 579th Engineering Batallion based out of Santa Rosa.
SPC Magowan and SPC Ortiz from the 579th Engineering Batallion based out of Santa Rosa are stationed in front of the sinkhole located on West Cliff Drive.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

First, the city could protect and armor the coastline along West Cliff Drive which could mean adding large rocks or other barriers. However, those barriers take up beach space and create other hazards and really only provide support on an emergency basis. The second option would be to convert West Cliff Drive to one-lane of traffic to provide a bigger distance between the road and the ocean.

In the meantime, with the impacts of climate change expected to worsen, the sea-level will continue rising, waves will continue to grow larger with stronger storms, West Cliff Drive will continue to erode and collapse.

As it is, Griggs estimates it could take months to repair portions of West Cliff Drive that collapsed with this storm.

“The most important thing is to be careful,” he said. “It can be dangerous.”

‘It sounded like a freight train’

Former Santa Cruz mayor Hilary Bryant was out walking her dog on West Cliff Drive around 6 a.m. Thursday and said “it sounded like a freight train was coming.” Bryant, who has surfed in the area for the past 30 years, watched the waves in awe.

“I’ve never seen the swell come in from this direction, with this much power and force,” she said, referring to the area near Mitchell’s Cove and Woodrow Avenue.

Portions of West Cliff Drive were shut down this week after damaging storms on Thursday, January 5, 2023.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Waves splashed water 20 feet high, over West Cliff Drive and into the driveways of homes. At one point, she and her dog were drenched by a wave.

Bryant felt it was too dangerous for the public so she contacted Santa Cruz Parks Director Tony Elliot to encourage him to close off the area. She said crews arrived quickly and they were still stationed there in the afternoon to keep cars and people a safe distance from the damaged portions of West Cliff Drive and the large waves.

As for the damages, Bryant said it will probably take some time before city officials have a good assessment.

“Infrastructure is expensive and there are big problems, but the time has well passed where we need to address it,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to wait any more. Unfortunately, I think Mother Nature has forced her hand on a lot of these.”

City of Santa Cruz Communications Manager Erika Smart said city officials are working with fire personnel, law enforcement, public works officials and the National Guard to ensure the public stays safe along the coastline. The impacted portion of West Cliff Drive will be closed until further notice.

Lookout was still trying to confirm the precise damages to the area.

Mike Beck, a UCSC professor for the past 20 years, has been assessing flood and erosion risk from storm surge and waves in California and across the globe. He was surprised by this morning’s conditions.

“I’ve never seen anything like what I saw this morning,” he said, about watching the waves break across E. Cliff Drive at Lake Moran near 26th Avenue on Thursday.

As the director of the new Center for Coastal Climate Resilience, where researchers study wave energy, he also has an understanding of the changing climate’s impact on waves.

“Wave energy is increasing globally,” he said. “This is a more significant issue than sea level rise.”

While he said he’s seen bigger waves hit Santa Cruz before, there was something else he hadn’t observed along the coastline that impressed him: the combination of the height of the waves and their frequency. In other words, the period of time between the waves was short and the waves were large.

He’s expecting E. Cliff Drive to have significant damages from the waves’ force and frequency.

“The effects of climate change are here, and now,” he said.

FOR THE RECORD: The story was updated to include the date for the city’s adoption of the West Cliff Drive plan and plan’s link.

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