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Cliff-Top Living in Northern Baja

How might climate change affect homes and businesses built helter-skelter on a seaside cliff.

Along this part of the voyage, I am discovering how climate change might affect homes and businesses built helter-skelter on a seaside cliff.

Location: at an Internet café in the Valle de Guadalupe, 20 miles inland from the coast, with vineyards and olive groves lining the hills.

Conditions: Clear skies, 3 p.m. It is warmer inland in the valley, but the breeze keeps the temperature cool.

Discussion: After our brief encounter with “hyena-like” road criminals, we had a pleasant night at the cliff-top camping of K-58, one of the last spots before the old Mexico Highway 1 veers inland, north of Ensenada. It was interesting to discover where we were when we woke up in the morning and stumbled around: a mix of regal coastline and disheveled buildings.

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Looking inland, the distant hills and canyons were empty, blooming with springtime wildflowers and green from this year’s rains. But on the thin sliver of land adjacent to the ocean, it was a mish mash of buildings and jumbled roads. Nearly the entire ribbon of coastal bluffs from Tijuana to Ensenada looks like an unsightly Legoland — an amusing mix of colors and shapes built by developers who seized on cheap Mexican construction costs and the relative proximity of the U.S. border.

When people say “they built right on the cliff,” it is no joke. Like a concrete waterfall, hotels and houses lean over the cliff-top and splash down into the beach. Perhaps they are limiting erosion by fortifying the cliff with cement. Still, the buildings look dangerously close to the high-tide line, and I wonder how sea level rise could affect this area.

The camp manager who has been 11 years at K-58, Angeles, didn’t think that storms were eroding the beach and cliffs. “Right now, there is almost no sand on the beach, because the winter storms washed it away with El Niño. I think the sand will come back during the summer, like it usually does.”

The effect of sea level on coastlines is one of the most confusing aspects of climate change. People ask, “Will my house be OK? It is 20 feet up from the beach.” Yearly variability of sand movement, like what Angeles observed at K-58, makes it hard to gauge changes over time. The interaction between the local sea, currents and terrain types — also known as coastal morphology — is a big variable. To make matters more complicated, sea level rise forecasts for this century range from 3 inches to 3 feet (or more). Doesn’t seem like much — but king tides that bring an extra foot of water (especially when mixed with storms) can wreak havoc on coastlines.

Flooding and storm surge managers have been plagued with the task of protecting coastlines for centuries — sometimes with enormous costs. Places like the Netherlands, with the most experienced “coastal defense” managers in the world, are now reversing their policies to allow the sea to encroach back onto the land. In Baja, amateur developers have taken over the job. Fortunately, the anecdotal evidence suggests that there is no danger to the buildings — so far.

Walking along the beach away from the cliff-top buildings, we reached the river mouth. The seclusion of the riverbed was a relief from the overwhelming coastal development just out of sight. Alyssum and I walked along in a reverie of wildflowers and vibrant flora. Every corner revealed something new: white sage, crimson-spiked succulents, and orange nasturtiums, which Alyssum says make a spicy treat in a salad and can be steeped into a tea to counter infection.

There is plenty of water from this winter’s rains, and nature is happily going about its business — even if a few assorted junk tires and plastic trash lay around without much use.