Climate Change, Coastal Erosion, Current Issue, Photography, Sea Level Rise

Take a look at “Climate Change, Sea Level Rise, and the Slow Erosion of “Home”” By Ryan Anderson in the current issue of PA!

If for some reason you were looking for me during the late 1980s and early 1990s, there’s a pretty good chance you would have found me hanging out on the seawall at Tamarack Beach in Carlsbad, California (see Figure 1). That is, of course, unless I wasn’t in the water. For me and my friends, that seawall was our home base. We camped there all day long, watching the waves, hanging out with friends. We were on that seawall all day in the summers and all afternoon during the school year. I never thought about it back then, but our lives revolved not only around the beach and surfing but also the constantly changing shoreline and the engineered structures that were meant to keep it all somewhat stable. In that sense, we lived very structured lives, even if we imagined ourselves as independent souls of the sea.

I go back to Carlsbad and North San Diego County any chance I get. I still consider it home even though, for the majority of the past two decades, I have lived elsewhere. It’s interesting how the whole idea of “home” works. You might wonder what pulled me away from this place. Here’s the answer: anthropology. For the past fifteen or so years, I have made my way through a BA, MA, and finally a Ph.D. in anthropology. This journey took me from Santa Cruz (UCSC) to San Diego (SDSU), all the way to Lexington, Kentucky (University of Kentucky). My studies and research in anthropology have taken me to various places in Mexico, from Oaxaca City to Quintana Roo to Baja California Sur. For the past ten years, most of my work has focused on the political ecology of coastal conservation and development in and around the small community of Cabo Pulmo, located on the “East Cape” of Baja California Sur, Mexico. But a turn of events has shifted my work…and brought me, unexpectedly, back home to study the long California coast that shaped my youth.

This new research direction all started with a storm and a few photographs. In early September of 2012, while I was doing my doctoral field-work in Cabo Pulmo, a large storm hit the coast. I walked outside with my camera to take a few photographs. I stepped up on a seawall, faced south, and took a series of photographs as the wind and waves bashed the shore. In the foreground of the image, there was a large, curved, concrete seawall that was holding up but showing severe signs of stress. The storm was impressive, and I knew it would bring damage. When I returned the following year in 2013, that seawall was gone. It was around this time that I started paying closer attention to the effects of coastal erosion and sea level rise. As it turns out, Cabo Pulmo is, like many places around the world, dealing with the slow, incessant effects of climate change, sea level rise, and coastal erosion. What this means, for the residents of Cabo Pulmo, is that they are losing small chunks of territory each year. Bits and pieces of home. Some have lost houses; others have lost businesses. These losses continue today. The residents of Cabo Pulmo are resilient—along with many other coastal communities around the world—but when it comes to sea level rise and coastal erosion, there are only so many options.

Continue reading in Volume 41, Issue 3 of Practicing Anthropology.

Anderson Figure 1
Figure 1. The Tamarack Seawall, Carlsbad, CA, 2018. This is the place where I spent so much time as a young surfer in San Diego County. Depend- ing on the storms, the amount of sand in front of the seawall varies considerably. In more recent years, the sand has stayed at higher levels due to the city’s consistent dredging and beach nourishment. It looks like just a mundane, boring seawall in this image, but its history is full of life, various lives in fact. When I visit this place and I see new kids there putting on wetsuits, waxing boards, and getting ready to head into the water, I wonder about the details of their lives.
Anderson Figure 2
Figure 2. Riprap Seawall in Front of a Place Called “Terramar” in Carlsbad, 2017. Facing south. This image was shot at a very low tide, but the beach is still very short here. It has been like this for years. At higher tides, this part of the beach is completely impassible. The houses that are situated on this part of the coast have been battling with the tides for decades.
Anderson Figure 3
Figure 3. View of North Terramar, 2017. This image was taken from the small groin at “Warm Waters,” one of the most popular surf spots in town. As mentioned in the previous image, this is a very low tide. The profile of the beach is quite flat, which results in a very short beach at medium to high tides.
Anderson Figure 4
Figure 4. View of Houses at Terramar, 2017. These houses, along with the bluff, are protected by a wall of rip rap that breaks up the energy of the incessant waves. Such measures work, for the time being. But they also require constant relatively frequent attention and maintenance. At some point, rising seas will require new strategies.
Anderson Figure 6
Figure 5. Failed Artificial Rock Wall at Terramar in Carlsbad, 2018. Once the water gets in, it’s pretty much the beginning of the end. And the water always gets in. It’s just a matter of time.
Anderson Figure 5
Figure 6. Beach Replenishment in Process South of Tamarack, in Carlsbad, CA, March 2018. The whole process of dredging and pumping sand back onto the beach is an intensive endeavor. The beach becomes a temporary industrial project with the end goal of creating inviting, sandy spaces for tourists and locals. From a surfing standpoint, dredging means mucky water but also the potential of new sand bars that can create temporary new surf spots.
Anderson Figure 7
Figure 7. Replenished Beach, Carlsbad, CA, 2018. This is the kind of beach that the city hopes to maintain and reproduce each year to satisfy the droves of tourists and residents who want to arrive to sandy shores. This is just north of Tamarack State Beach in Carlsbad, CA.


Ryan Anderson ( is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Santa Clara University. His work focuses on conservation, sustainability, and development along the California coast (in Mexico and the United States). This includes research about coastal erosion and sea level rise adaptation in California and ongoing work on conservation, development, and governance in Cabo Pulmo, Baja California Sur, Mexico.


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