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Summer is Here. But Winter is Coming

Summer in San Diego brings more than crowds of people to the beach - it also brings warmer water, smaller waves, and mellower tidal shifts. This results in stabler beach widths, and even more sand on some beaches due to seasonal south swells which push eroded sand back onto our shores. But winter will return, and it’s an El Niño year, which raises the likelihood of another wet, storm-fueled season in Southern California.

Our region’s gnarliest experiences with coastal storm surge flooding have occurred during El Niño winters, with one notable exception - last winter, which was unrelentingly wet due to a series of huge atmospheric rivers. Climate change is linked with increasing severity and frequency of both the El Nino phenomenon and atmospheric river events in California.

El Niño and its effects on our beaches is the result of complex atmospheric and oceanic factors. We don’t know what El Niño will look like this year - but we do know that there is potential for typical El Niño events, like coastal flooding, to be more severe due to climate change.

So how do these high tides and large swells affect our coast? Here’s a quick accounting of how our beaches fared last winter.

King Tides compilation 

Each year, our volunteer network crowdsources footage of the year’s highest (and lowest) tides for a short compilation video, provideing a visual aid for coastal policymakers and the general public. With a foot of sea level rise predicted by 2050 and three or more feet by the end of century1, today’s 7+ feet King high tides will look like average daily high tides in as little as 30 years. This year’s video includes footage from the ‘Big Friday’ swell of Jan 6 as well. 


Snapshot of winter storm damage

San Clemente - Sure, it's in Orange County. But our neighbor to the north is worth mentioning since a landslide in April interrupted Coaster rail service less than two weeks after service reopened from an earlier landslide, which suspended it for six months. Surfrider is pushing for rail relocation in San Clemente by 2035, similar to our ongoing efforts to relocate the railroad along Del Mar’s eroding bluffs. Over 26,000 tons of riprap boulders have been placed on San Clemente’s beaches since 2021 to protect the railroad, at a great cost to the public beach. 

San Onofre - Often considered part of the "OC," the ever-popular San O is actually in San Diego County. Heavy rains damaged San O's dirt parking lot, hampering beach access considerably since it remained closed for much of winter. With the recent hiring of our first-ever Living Shorelines Coordinator, Surfrider plans to be very involved with long-term plans to save San Onofre. 

Oceanside - The Strand, which runs along the entirety of downtown Oceanside’s shoreline, closed several times due to beach cobble and sand taking over the road. Coastal flooding along The Strand is a relatively common sight along Oceanside’s heavily eroded coast. Beach erosion was most abundantly clear at the pier, where the Jan 6 swells scoured a small cliff in the sand that reached 5-6 ft high. The North pier parking lot is currently closed, although it’s unclear whether that can be attributed to winter storms and swell. And lastly, rain overflowed raw sewage tanks at the La Salina wastewater treatment plan near Buccaneer Beach in March, closing the South Oceanside shoreline for several days.

High tide waves wash onto The Strand in Oceanside, a street along the beach boardwalk.
Inundation at The Strand, Oceanside. Photo by Light and Magic Art
Sewage-tainted whitewater washes up against a visibly scarped Oceanside beach
Oceanside Pier- dirty foam from a sewage leak washes up against the visible escarpment created by the Jan 6 swell. *Light and Magic Art.
Large waves take sand from the beach in Carlsbad

The January 6 "Big Friday" swell scours sand from Carlsbad State Beach. 


Carlsbad - Erosion is worst at South Carlsbad’s beaches, many of which have little sand left and are primarily cobblestone beaches. Similar to Oceanside, Carlsbad clearly lost sand from the erosive forces of large waves. The parking lot at Tamarack Beach closed for a few days due to flooding on January 6, and flooding at 'dip in the road' caused a lane closure as well. Otherwise, Carlsbad fared relatively well compared to its neighbor to the south.

Encinitas - Storm damage led to several beach closures in Encinitas:

  • January swells destabilized the north end of the San Elijo lagoon mouth, prompting a temporary closure of five campsites and tons of additional of riprap boulders on the beach to protect the southern end of the San Elijo State Beach campground.  
  • The parking lot at nearby Cardiff State Beach closed several times due to storm damage as well, after January 6 and most recently in April.
  • On January 12, the City closed the beach access at Stonesteps after deeming it structurally unsafe. Five months later, on June 21, the beach access reopened after the City contracted emergency repairs... but future repairs will be needed after summer.
  • A bluff collapse in March at San Elijo State Beach resulted in a temporary closure of the North San Elijo day use parking lot. The failure occurred within spitting distance to several parking spots. 

Solana Beach - Nothing  notable to report, other than sand erosion.

Del Mar - Surfrider volunteers documented at least 15 bluff landslides underneath the train tracks by late January. They’ve continued to occur, with at least one close enough to the tracks to temporarily delay rail service. The railroad’s precarious position atop the eroding bluffs has been the subject of much Surfrider advocacy over the years, and we continue our ongoing campaign to support permanent relocation of the rail corridor to a safer, inland location. A favorable federal board decision in April helps keep up the momentum for Del Mar rail relocation.


A circle around the aftermath of the Black's beach bluff collapse, whose rubble split the beach in half

The rubble from the collapse at Black's beach. Photo by John Cocozza.

Rubble from a small bluff slide in Del Mar underneath the train tracks
Rubble from a partial bluff slide in Del Mar, just under the railroad. Photo by Udo Wahn.
Large boulders (riprap) was brought in to stabilize the southern end of San Elijo campground.

Tons of riprap boulders were added to the San Elijo State Beach campground, just north of the lagoon mouth.

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San Diego, Black's Beach - The largest bluff collapse of the year occurred near Black's on January 20, captured on video by Phinney Cole and quickly went viral once Surfline reposted on their Instagram. The collapse was so large that the rubble on the beach split a normally wide, walkable beach into two sections. We can’t help but mention the huge surf at Black’s last year too, which spared no prisoners.

San Diego, Windansea -  A partial bluff slope failure in March caused some undercutting of the boardwalk and damage to a storm drain on the north side of the beach. The City to applied for emergency permitting to replace storm drain infrastructure, including the curb, gutter, and a new bluff barrier fence. They're also building a 20-foot-long, 6-foot-tall concrete retaining wall to connect to the existing one. Beach access was largely unaffected, although signage in the street was an inconvenience. 

San Diego, Mission Beach & Pacific Beach - Jan 6 swells breached and flooded the boardwalk in both areas, prompting temporary closures and work crews to clean up the sandy mess left over from the flood. We do not know the full extent of the damage to boardwalk properties, etc., but even long-time residents of the area had never seen waves overtop the boardwalk before.  

San Diego, Ocean Beach - The dilapidated pier suffered damage from the Jan 6 swell, and only recently reopened on July 1 after being closed for repairs for the past seven months. Not too surprising, as this same dangerous recipe - big swell atop a high tide - has caused several pier closures over the last few winters. 

San Diego, Sunset Cliffs - Partial bluff collapses occur frequently along Sunset Cliffs, and this winter was no exception. Volunteers counted several slides at and around Garbage Beach. To our knowledge, beach access - already a bit sketchy around here - was not adversely affected. 

Coronado - Similar to Imperial Beach (below), the relentless rain intensified how often crossborder sewage flows from the Tijuana River and its tributaries tainted their beaches. Coronado experienced a record number of beach closures this winter due to known sewage contamination and high bacterial counts in the water. 

Imperial Beach - Sewage-tainted waters flooded several areas in Imperial Beach on January 6. Crossborder sewage flows are the critical emergency in this border beach community. Heavy rains overflowed and damaged Tijuana's insufficient wastewater infrastructure all throughout Winter, causing heavier than normal flows through the Tijuana river. The beach in Imperial Beach Pier has been closed every day this year, and beaches closer to the river mouth have been closed for over 560 days. 

*Did you observe anything that we missed? Email and we'll add it to the list! 

1Kalansky, J., Cayan D., Barba, K., Walsh, L., Brouwer, K., and Boudreau, D., D. (2018). San Diego Summary Report. California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment. University of California, San Diego.