Want to See Global Warming's Potential Impact on Santa Monica Beaches?

A few decades from now, your favorite sunning spot along the beach in Santa Monica could succumb to the fish as a result of global warming and an expected rise in sea level. It sounds like the plot of a summer blockbuster, but a group of scientists is using technology to visualize this potential real-life scenario.


This week an installation called The Owl started giving visitors to Santa Monica Pier a look at what could happen when the ocean takes over. The project, put into virtual reality by a San Leandro tech firm called Owlized, is an attempt by scientists to get beach-goers to support environmental action. U.S. Geological Survey scientist Juliette Finzi Hart, who contributed the survey's sea level rise forecast data to the project, helped kickstart the Owl by tacking photos of Santa Monica beach from the pier. Owlized filled in the virtual water.

The Owl lets you peer through a viewer that resembles coin-operated binoculars — except the 360-degree virtual reality imagery is of a possible future. It gives viewers an approximation of a 24-inch sea level rise, which is possible by 2050, and a 38-inch rise, possible by 2100. The experience includes a worst-case scenario of sea level rise and a 100-year storm.

In a few of the visualizations, iconic blue L.A. County lifeguard stands that are now surrounded by sand are barely visible in the water.

"People think of climate change as from the future," says Phyllis Grifman, associate director at USC Sea Grant, which worked on the project in conjunction with the USGS and the city of Santa Monica. "It isn't. We already see flooding in coastal communities. For sea-level rise the time for planning is now. And starting to plan now means you never have to go to that doom-and-gloom disaster scenario."

Scientists also give a rosier scenario under which natural-style berms, dunes and wetlands are created to perform as natural barriers and filters when the ocean comes calling. That kind of development won't stop sea level rise, but it could mean the difference between waves in the streets and a world where at least some preexisting beaches are still usable.

"We don't want to leave people with a sense of impending doom, but rather solutions," says USGS' Hart. "There's evidence that shows dunes and wetland features along the coast can absorb wave energy, and you don't have as much damage."

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