National assessment of shoreline change, part 4: Historical coastal cliff retreat along the California coast

Open-File Report 2007-1133
By:  and 



Coastal cliff retreat, the landward migration of the cliff face, is a chronic problem along many rocky coastlines in the United States. As coastal populations continue to grow and community infrastructures are threatened by erosion, there is increased demand for accurate information regarding trends and rates of coastal cliff retreat. There is also a need for a comprehensive analysis of cliff retreat that is consistent from one coastal region to another. To meet these national needs, the U.S. Geological Survey is conducting an analysis of historical coastal cliff retreat along open-ocean rocky coastlines of the conterminous United States and parts of Hawaii, Alaska, and the Great Lakes. One purpose of this work is to develop standard repeatable methods for mapping and analyzing coastal cliff retreat so that periodic updates of coastal erosion can be made nationally that are systematic and internally consistent.

This report on the California Coast is an accompaniment to a report on long-term sandy shoreline change for California. This report summarizes the methods of analysis, interprets the results, and provides explanations regarding long-term rates of cliff retreat. Neither detailed background information on the National Assessment of Shoreline Change Project nor detailed descriptions of the geology and geomorphology of the California coastline are presented in this report. The reader is referred to the shoreline change report (Hapke et al., 2006) for this type of background information.

Cliff retreat evaluations are based on comparing one historical cliff edge digitized from maps, with a recent cliff edge interpreted from lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) topographic surveys. The historical cliff edges are from a period ranging from 1920-1930, whereas the lidar cliff edges are from either 1998 or 2002. Long-term (~70- year) rates of retreat are calculated using the two cliff edges. The rates of retreat presented in this report represent conditions from the 1930s to 1998, and are not intended for predicting future cliff edge positions or rates of retreat. Due to the geomorphology of much of California's rocky coast (high-relief, steep slopes with no defined cliff edge) as well as to gaps in both the historical maps and lidar data, we were able to derive two cliff edges and therefore calculate cliff retreat rates for a total of 353 km.

The average rate of coastal cliff retreat for the State of California was -0.3±0.2 m/yr, based on rates averaged from 17,653 individual transects measured throughout all areas of California's rocky coastline. The average amount of cliff retreat was 17.7 m over the 70-year time period of our analysis. Retreat rates were generally lowest in Southern California where coastal engineering projects have greatly altered the natural coastal system. California permits shoreline stabilization structures where homes, buildings or other community infrastructure are imminently threatened by erosion. While seawalls and/or riprap revetments have been constructed in all three sections of California, a larger proportion of the Southern California coast has been protected by engineering works, due, in part, to the larger population pressures in this area.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title National assessment of shoreline change, part 4: Historical coastal cliff retreat along the California coast
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2007-1133
DOI 10.3133/ofr20071133
Year Published 2007
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Western Coastal and Marine Geology
Description vi, 51 p.
Country United States
State California
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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