The Changing Tides
Oct 16, 2019 02:56PM
Surfers know how to live with change. Doing the thing we love most means abiding by ever-shifting conditions. The tide rolls in and out, altering waves from one hour to the next; a shift in swell direction can be the difference between beautifully peeling waves and crunchy close outs. When the wind clocks around, a glassy ocean turns choppy and blown out. And some places, like California’s North Coast, are particularly fickle; understanding how all the variables come together is critical to scoring good waves.
Unfortunately, surfers are facing and dreading a transformation far worse than onshore winds and lack of a quality sandbar. Every week, stories of record setting temperatures, melting glaciers, rising seas, and extreme weather fill the news. They’re ready to see a change.
This August, the Surfrider Foundation celebrated 35 years of protecting our beaches and waves. Humboldt features prominently in that history: Along with surfers Glenn Hening and Lance Carson, Humboldt State University (HSU) alumnus Tom Pratte founded Surfrider after honing his activism muscle in Shelter Cove, a beloved surf spot on the Lost Coast.
In the early 1980s, during Pratte’s time at HSU, the Humboldt County Harbor District proposed extending a breakwater in Shelter Cove to better accommodate fishing vessels. The development would have destroyed the breaking waves, and the district had already compromised the Cove’s popular “First Reef” spot by constructing a breakwater in the intertidal zone. Despite the area’s longstanding reputation as a favorite surf break, the district failed to consult local surfers about its plan to take more rock from the “Second Reef” to complete the project. But word got out, and opposition developed quickly.
In a September 2017 letter to the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, longtime local Jud Ellinwood recounted the history: “Over the next several months literally hundreds of North Coast surfers and their supporters mailed messages of opposition on post cards to regulatory agencies and signed petitions presented to them; representatives of local and statewide surfing organizations testified at numerous permitting agency public hearings and submitted written comments, collected and compiled scientific data.”
One of the leaders of this opposition? Tom Pratte. Ultimately, the conflict was settled on the side of protecting the waves. Within a year of returning home to Southern California after graduation, Pratte joined Hening and Carson in founding Surfrider in Malibu. Pratte passed away from cancer in 1994, but his legacy and determination live on through Surfrider’s tireless efforts and victories to protect our coast.
Nearly 40 years later, protecting waves has grown only more complicated. Accelerating climate change and sea level rise are intensifying many of Surfrider’s long fought battles. Sea-level rise is expected to harm beaches in several ways (many yet unknown) including:
Pollution. More rain can result in sewage overflows and urban runoff.
Ocean acidification. High concentrations of carbon dioxide are causing the oceans to acidify at rapid rates, harming marine life including shellfish, coral reefs, and crustaceans.
Shrinking beaches. Rising sea levels will swallow beaches, taking away public access, limiting recreation, and threatening healthy ecosystems.
Surf. Climate change and rising seas will contribute to extreme tides that will impact how waves break. In areas where the ocean floor is sandy and flat, the wave may break closer to shore, changing the size and shape of the wave; in areas where the ocean floor is uneven and rocky, higher sea levels will inundate the reef, leaving less area for the wave to break and increasing the possibility that the wave might not break at all.
So, what now? Healthy, natural ecosystems serve as buffers from sea level rise, so hope can be found in the conservation, restoration, and enhancement of wetlands, dunes, and estuaries. We can also demand that legislators create, support, and implement policies designed to preserve our world and protect its future inhabitants.
And of course, we can all step up in a number of ways to adapt to a rapidly changing climate in our everyday lives:
Choose low-carbon transportation. Carpool, use mass transit, walk, or bike to destinations; if you’re buying a new car, opt for an electric vehicle; drive at the speed limit speeding can reduce gas mileage by up to 33 percent. Keep your tires properly inflated to get the best gas mileage possible.
Plant an Ocean-Friendly Garden. OFGs conserve water and keep pollutants out of the ocean, trap greenhouse gasses, and help build more resilient ecosystems.
Break up with plastic. Plastic is made from petroleum products and takes a tremendous amount of energy to create and dispose. 29 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions result from the manufacturing and final disposal of plastic goods.
Upgrade your light bulbs. Replace incandescent light bulbs with more efficient fluorescent or LED lights.
Monitor your thermostat. Not too high and not too low! Program your air conditioner or heater to vacation mode when you’re not home. Weatherproof your home to reduce drafts and air leaks by caulking, using insulation, and weather stripping to save energy.
Embrace alternatives. Replace older appliances with new energy efficient ones, add solar panels to your home, and advocate for Community Choice Energy.
Eat local. 13 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to food production, transportation, and disposal.
Use less water. Installing drip irrigation in your garden and purchasing water efficient appliances will help cut down on your water usage.
Reduce, reuse, and upcycle. When possible, buy less and buy used, then resell, recycle or upcycle items you no longer use.
Join Surfrider. Climate change is the defining issue of our time; help support our efforts and ensure a habitable future! Local Surfrider chapters welcome your membership and participation in Humboldt, Mendocino, and Del Norte counties. Learn more at