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Pacific Coastal & Marine Science Center

USGS Pacific Coastal & Marine Science Center

This page features excerpts from the 2007 USGS Fact Sheet: “USGS Western Coastal and Marine Geology Team” (2007),


The Pacific Coastal & Marine Science Center of the USGS studies the coasts of the western United States, including Alaska and Hawai`i. Team scientists conduct research, monitor processes, and develop information about coastal and marine geologic hazards, environmental conditions, habitats, and energy and mineral resources. This information helps managers at all levels of government and in the private sector make informed decisions about the use and protection of national coastal and ocean resources. 

Locations and Personnel

The Pacific Coastal & Marine Science Center consists of about 100 people located in Santa Cruz and Menlo Park, California. Work and staff are integrated with the other USGS Coastal and Marine Geology centers in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and St. Petersburg, Florida.

Examples of Current Research

Read about the hottest research news and information in the USGS monthly newsletter Sound Waves.

Coastal Erosion

Sea-cliff collapse and loss of beach sand are among the coastal-erosion problems being studied by team scientists. Field measurements—including repeated high-resolution lidar (light detection and ranging) surveys of coastal cliffs, surf-zone current measurements, and detailed mapping of beach topography and nearshore bathymetry—are combined with conceptual and numerical models in order to quantify short- and long-term coastal changes, develop predictive models, and assist regional coastal-zone and sediment management. Partners include local, State, and Federal agencies and academic institutions.

recovering current profiler on beach; see caption below.

Above, Andrew Schwartz and Dan Hanes maneuver a current profiler for a study of surf-zone hydrodynamics at Ocean Beach, on the west side of San Francisco, California. Beach erosion has been a continuing problem in this area, and this fieldwork is part of an effort to document, analyze, and simulate the processes that control sand transport and sedimentation patterns.

For more information, please visit our PCMSC Coastal Processes Studies web pages.

Alaskan shoreline; see caption below.

Above, Ann Gibbs (inset) boards a float plane in which she and Bruce Richmond collected aerial imagery along hundreds of kilometers of Alaska's North Slope coastline (shown) as part of the USGS National Assessment of Shoreline Change project.

Tsunami Hazards

USGS researchers are working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies to identify places where tsunamis might be triggered, including offshore fault zones and areas prone to submarine landslides. USGS staff have had a prominent role in documenting the geologic impacts of recent tsunamis, including the tragic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. This documentation is being used to improve interpretation of ancient tsunami deposits and to aid in developing local and national tsunami-hazard assessments.

Guy Gelfenbaum in Sumatra; see caption below.

Above, Guy Gelfenbaum measures coastal subsidence along Sumatra's northwest coast caused by the December 2004 earthquake that triggered a devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Submergence of the tree roots indicates that the land here subsided 1 to 2 meters during the earthquake; the trees were snapped off by the tsunami.

For more information, please visit our Tsunamis & Earthquakes web pages.

Human Impacts and Geological Processes in the Urban Ocean

Southern California hosts one of the largest economy in the United States. Industrial and agricultural development as well as societal needs from one of the largest metropolitan areas have continuously changed the natural landscape and coastal/marine ecosystems since the European settlement. The negative consequences of the human activities are apparent: disappearing wetlands, polluted estuaries and oceans, eroding beaches and coastlines, and declining fisheries. With the projected climate change for the coming decades, these negative impacts on the health of ocean as well as human are likely to be exacerbated. In order to be able to model and forecast the magnitude and frequency of these natural and anthropogenic changes, one needs to have a better understanding of the local and regional geological and oceanographic processes as well as the history of the products from these processes. Moreover, knowledge on the past, present, and future status and trend of geological controls, physical forcing, and the coastal ecosystem in an urban setting are key ingredients in developing sensible coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP) products.

tripod recovery; see caption below.

Above, scientists recover an instrumented tripod that spent several weeks on the sea floor off southern California, recording data on currents, suspended sediment concentrations, and other parameters related to sediment and pollutant transport.

For more information, please visit our Human Impacts and Geological Processes in Southern California Urban Ocean Project Summary page.

Puget Sound Nearshore Project

Urbanization around Puget Sound, Washington, has caused declines in fish and wildlife, water quality, and ecosystem health. As part of the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project—a cooperative effort involving Federal, State, and local agencies—USGS scientists are developing information on the sound’s physical, chemical, and biological processes. Work focuses on the effects of urbanization on nearshore ecosystems, the restoration of large river deltas, and the ecosystem impacts of dam removal (see below).

For more information, please visit our Coastal Habitats in Puget Sound Project Summary page.

Earthquake Hazards

The USGS is mapping the locations, geometry, slip rates, and earthquake-recurrence intervals of active faults offshore California and the Pacific Northwest—information essential for seismic-hazard assessment and mitigation. In selected coastal zones, the USGS is also mapping soil and rock properties that affect earthquake-induced ground motions in order to assess the potential for liquefaction and landslides.

For more information, please visit our Global Geoengineering Research web site

Offshore Geologic Mapping

USGS scientists combine high-resolution bathymetry with underwater video and sea-floor sampling to develop offshore geologic maps. In addition to addressing a host of coastal-zone issues—such as designation of marine protected areas, regional sediment management, and location of offshore infrastructure—these maps provide important baselines for monitoring and modeling coastal change.

sand waves in San Francisco Bay; see caption below.

Above, giant sand waves on the sea floor west of the Golden Gate, mapped for the first time at high resolution in 2004-5 in a cooperative effort by the USGS and California State University, Monterey Bay. Slopes in image appear steeper than they actually are (vertical exaggeration, 3X).

For more information, please visit our:

Benthic Habitats

Sea-floor characteristics affect the distribution, abundance, and behavior of bottom-dwelling fish and shellfish of commercial and recreational value. USGS scientists are mapping benthic (sea-floor) habitats in both Federal and State waters to better understand seabed framework and dynamics and to support fisheries management efforts.

For more information, please visit our:

Coral Reefs

collecting water samples in Molokai; see caption below.

Above, land-derived sediment (brown) drifts over coral reefs off the Island of Maui, Hawai`i. USGS scientists are studying the effects of sediment and pollutants on coral-reef health. Inset: Mike Torresan and Charlene Tetlak Parsons collect water sample for analysis of suspended sediment.

USGS scientists are mapping the distribution and condition of coral reefs as part of a national effort to understand and protect these fragile environments. A special focus is on the influence of land-derived sediments and contaminants on reef health. Projects are underway in Hawai`i and Guam in cooperation with the National Park Service, the University of Hawai`i, and others.

For more information, please visit our Pacific Coral Reef Geology and Oceanography web pages

Science to Support River Estoration

The Elwha River Restoration Project will reconnect the water, salmon and sediment of a pristine river and coast of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Coordinated by the National Park Service, restoration of the Elwha River will include the removal of two large dams that have blocked salmon and sediment passage for almost 100 years. Dam removal will begin in September 2011 and last approximately 2.5 years. Following dam removal, salmon will be able to spawn in pristine river habitats of the Olympic National Park, and sediment will once again flow down the river and to the eroding shoreline.

The role of the U.S. Geological Survey in this restoration project is to provide scientific monitoring and analyses of the fish, waters and sediment of this historic event. This work is coordinated with the Olympic National Park, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, and other local and state entities.

For more information, please visit our website on USGS Science to Support the Elwha River Restoration Project

Knowledge Management

Team members are developing tools for processing, distributing, and archiving large volumes of coastal and marine data. These tools include data-management guidelines; a CMG Program Web site ( and field-data catalog (; a monthly USGS-wide newsletter (Sound Waves,; and the National Archive of Marine Seismic Surveys (

These varied research endeavors of the USGS Pacific Coastal & Marine Science Center, in cooperation with other organizations, provide information essential to sound management of the Nation’s western coasts and seas.

For More Information, contact:

Pacific Coastal & Marine Science Center
Bob Rosenbauer, Center Director
(831) 460-7401
400 Natural Bridges Drive
Santa Cruz, California 95060 (directions)
General Information: (831) 427-4450

See also, these official USGS Publications:


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Page Contact Information: Laura Zink Torresan
Page Last Modified: 27 January 2012 (lzt)