SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - Winter weather has not delivered violent storms to the Santa Barbara County coastline, but the impact of the waves has been more powerful than many expected. Researchers are emersed in the weather pattern using new technology to map the impacts and plan for the future.
UC Santa Barbara graduate student Paul Alessio with the Earth Sciences department is on the front line.
"This is the best place you could possibly be to measure coastal erosion," said Alessio.
He has already seen areas where the sea level is up a foot, and some of the coastal spots the public may feel safe with but he says, the soils are failing.
"All these waves will be pushing even more water further into the coastline and causing the destructive force hitting the beaches, hitting the sea cliffs and removing more material," said Alessio. "We're seeing a lot of material removed from sea cliffs we have had some failures over on the campus by Lagoon road. We have seen a lot of boulders fall out of the cliffs in Isla Vista. We have seen erosion at Goleta Beach."
Cliff erosion can take place in very small increments. A LiDAR unit on a tripod can record up close and 3-D images of the coast, also, areas near buildings, and where rock walls have been installed for shoreline protection. LiDAR stands for light detection and ranging. In some areas, a few days apart, images can show missing boulders, or full sections of cliff walls.
The set up in compact and can be quickly transported from site to site, with remote power provided by a car battery.
Researcher Michael Truong is also on the coastline with special gear from UCSB and nearby Cal State Northridge which provided some of the electronics for this project.
"I go out week to week and get a profile of how much sand is leaving or coming in.
"It's talking to a bunch of satellites in space," said Truong. "It will tell me what height and what latitude and longitude."
Local and federal officials are watching this kind of information closely as they make long range planning decisions or enforce current rules on ocean impacts, especially where the public lives and recreates.
Equipment has been regularly seen at Goleta's Hendry's Beach, Coal Oil Point, parts of Isla Vista, and Shoreline Park in Santa Barbara.
Regular readings are being taken on site, sent to a satellite overhead and downloaded at UCSB.
The best time for the research is right after a storm, but the work is being done even if the weather isn't coming through on a regular basis as expected.
Recently a section of the More Mesa cliffs came down where popular caves once existed. The collapse took place without warning. No one was hurt. A coastal hiker using the same area to go from the bluff top to the beach saw others doing the same thing. He was not too worried at this point. "I don't think they are in any harm, it already collapsed," said Dave Abernathy.
Scientists may look at it differently and see other parts of the shoreline nearby ready to come apart too.
The research is also used for long range planning in addition to emergency preparedness. "We are looking at five, ten, 15 years.. The cliffs at your door step and you don't know what to do, " said Alessio.
Ultimately the research will be used for long range development planning, and also coastal protection decisions.Slideshow: UCSB Researchers Use Special Gear to Study El Nino Impacts on Coastline