Thursday, October 21, 2021

Summer beaches: What happens when you open the ocean

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My favorite summer break is an alternative escape called the Sonoma Coast, a 45-mile stretch of coastal coastline that connects San Francisco to the Santa Cruz Mountains and above. I remember as a kid growing up in the Bay Area, entering a white sand beach and diving headfirst into clear water. No wind. Just the ocean. I loved it so much that I would happily ski nearby on my summer days off. Now I get to travel to a place that I wish I could go more often.

Not only is the Sonoma Coast beautiful, the climate is ideal for swimming and surfing. As far as breezes go, it’s fun to come up here on a clear day and just lie on the beach and observe the waves and the blue sky.

In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Alta Trails is also a favorite for hiking and exploring the dense forests. But outside of those areas, the Sonoma Coast — from the towns of Santa Rosa and Fort Bragg to the high seas of Cowell Beach and the shores of the ocean near Nepenthe — is an escape for families and locals year round.

The area would also benefit from a bike/hike/seaside retreat if it were not threatened by climate change. Experts predict that snowfall on the Sonoma Coast is expected to decline dramatically in the next 15 years.

And that’s not all. Off the Sonoma Coast, coastal ranges are expected to expand much further out to sea. Scientists predict that by 2080, the coastal range inland of Napa could be as much as 200 miles wide and 600 miles long.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way would be to watch how the ocean hits our beaches. What’s going to happen when a 150-mile sea level rise forms a wall of water against the Coit Tower? It’s a question even well-informed older people fear.

As I walked through the beach path at Alta Trails, I saw families and dogs jumping over rocks to the ocean. If sea level rise makes their vacation plans more costly, I can only imagine what the reality of lower temperatures and fewer storms would do to their lives.

My grandmother, who attended Sacramento Junior College on a sabbatical when she was in her late 40s, told me a story about those long-ago summers at Alta Trails. All summer, she could see how beautiful the area was. After graduation, though, she said everyone was thinking about working on the ranches and ranch camps where the livestock stood along the Sonoma coast. Her teaching job was not available and she ended up returning to a career at the university.

The fact that families could escape to the Sonoma Coast during those years should not be underestimated, she said. Her college years are “just one of the places I gave up.” I worry that no one will be able to give up traveling to Sonoma Coast towns when climate change makes coastal areas uninhabitable.

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