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Will Climate Change Wipe Out Surfing?

There is already evidence that storms driven by climate change are causing bigger swells—which makes surfers happy. What makes surfers worry is sea level rise.
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Jacob Hechter is gingerly traversing the rocks on his way out to Rincon, in Santa Barbara. Known as the Queen of the Coast, Rincon is a 300-yard cobblestone point that lies at a right angle to the rest of the Southern California coast, catching swells and sending surfers barreling down its sweeping curve. As he navigates the rocks, Hechter, a cartographer, muses aloud about what climate change might mean for a sport whose domain is the thin slice of Earth where the lip of the land gives way to the fury of the ocean—a domain that is expected to alter dramatically as the world heats up.

“Every time a new climate study comes out its worse than the last,” Hechter says. “Climate change means more big storms. More storms, more surf, right? I guess that’s the most you can say for such a calamity: Maybe we’ll get some epic waves.”

Among surfers, Hechter’s assumption is common. According to Curt Storlazzi, a surfer and a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who studies coastlines, it is true that climate change will likely cause ever-larger storms, and more epic swells. But that doesn’t take into account the varied effects of climate change. The periods between those swells will lengthen: surfers may get to enjoy a week of all-time surf, but that might be followed by a month or more of excruciating flatness. “Climate change makes extremes more extreme,” Storlazzi said. Over time, he added, because the waves between storms will get smaller even as the bigger waves get bigger, the average height of waves is likely to stay the same, and may even go down a bit.

There is already evidence that storms driven by climate change are causing bigger swells—which makes surfers happy. What makes surfers worry is sea level rise.

As Hechter works his way through the green, moss-slicked cobblestones, he pauses to watch Kelly Slater, the best and most famous surfer of all time, fly down the point, weaving across a beautiful, tilting wave. Hechter emits a soft hoot of appreciation. For surfers, the contour of a wave is as important as its size, and the way a wave builds and breaks is determined chiefly by the shape of the ocean floor as it meets the shoreline. The elegant, inward sloping curve of Rincon fuels and restrains a wave’s energy at the same time, allowing it to fold gradually instead of all at once, following the arc of the shore. If Hechter is lucky, he’ll catch a wave that will take him from the top of the point to the bottom, leaving him Gumby-legged by the end.

Even a foot change in the tide line can mean the difference between great and mediocre waves—which is why Hechter has waited for the afternoon low tide at Rincon. Researchers believe sea levels could rise six inches by 2030, and a foot by 2050, or more.

“Sea level rise is going to change where waves break,” said Storlazzi. Waves that break at sand-bottomed surf spots like Huntington Beach in Southern California, or the Outer Banks in North Carolina, are likely to retain their same basic form as they move toward the land. But waves at surf spots that lack a dynamic bottom—where they break over cobblestone, like at Rincon, or coral reef, like G-Land, in Java—could change significantly. These breaks are often better at low tide, and as sea levels rise, Storlazzi said, it is reasonable to assume that they will be good less often.

“The frequency where you have the exact right combination of tide, wind, and swell to make a classic surf day are going to be fewer and further between,” said David Revell, a senior associate with the environmental hydrology firm Phillip Williams and Associates. Revell said climate change will eventually have a profound affect on surfing, citing Rincon and Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz, as two good examples of breaks that could eventually be significantly affected by sea level rise. On a long enough time frame, Revell said, some low tide spots, like Supertubes in Los Angeles County, could disappear completely.

Both Revell and Storlazzi emphasized that new breaks will be created as sea level rise reconfigures the world’s coastlines, and they noted that surf spots that break better at high tide may benefit from the changes. But they said that for the foreseeable future the overall effect of advancing seas is likely to be more destructive than constructive.

“Who knows where my kids and grandkids are going to be surfing,” Hechter, who is 30, says before he pushes off the last rock and paddles out. “But I’m looking forward to some all-time swells.” He shakes his head. “Of course I feel like a philistine for saying it. Surfing is the least of anyone’s worries.”