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Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

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Human Impacts and Geological Processes in Southern California Urban Ocean

Santa Barbara Littoral Cell Coastal Processes Study
Coastal Storm Modeling System (CoSMoS)
PCMSC Coastal Processes Studies


Southern CA 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.

Start/End Dates

10/1/2010 - 9/30/2015


Southern California


  • Jingping Xu, Project Chief
  • Patrick Barnard, Geologist
  • Brian Edwards, Geologist
  • Jim Hein, Geologist
  • Mary McGann, Geologist
  • Marlene Noble, Oceanographer
  • Chris Sherwood
  • Pete Swarzenski, Oceanographer
  • Jon Warrick, Geologist
Map of Southern California showing study area


Our objective is to attain improved understanding of the history of anthropogenic impacts and the geological and oceanographic processes that alter and redistribute such impacts in a coastal urban setting. By studying the history of sedimentation processes in high-sedimentation-rate environments with well-preserved sediment records such as coastal wetlands/marshes and submarine canyons, the magnitude and frequency of natural (floods, storms) as well as anthropogenic (European settlement, agricultural development [DDT], etc) events in late Holocene can be characterized. With continued development of the Coastal Storm Modeling System, beach and nearshore morphological change over a range of spatial and temporal scales can be identified and quantified. Our goal is to tie the historical perspective with the knowledge of geological and oceanographic processes, which control the input, redistribution, and eventual deposition of land-based material (sediment, nutrient, contaminant, groundwater), to help forecast the future trend under the projected climate change (sea-level rise, for instance).


This project continues and expands the goals of the two previous projects (S. CA Regional Investigation [Fiscal Years 2000-2005], and CA Urban Ocean Project [Fiscal Years 2006-2010]) to understand human impact on the ocean and ocean's impact upon humans in CA urban centers. It contains the following thrusts:

  1. Investigation of late Holocene paleo-sedimentary environment in a coastal setting that can provide invaluable insights in the projection of future climate change and sea level rise and their impact to the urban centers (Task 2).
  2. Investigation of geological and oceanographic processes that control the transport and fate of anthropogenic products (sediment, pollutant) and have direct impacts on urban societies from shoreline erosion to human health to marine habitats (Tasks 3, 4 and 5).

All of these issues are critical to the California urbanized coastal zone. By approaching these problems in a collaborative, multi-disciplinary way, we can maximize our impact while minimizing our costs. We can also gain by advancing our state of knowledge regarding processes affecting the coastal zone and specifically the geology of California.Research results contribute to answer the challenges highlighted in the USGS 2007-2017 science strategies (USGS circular 1309):

  1. Understanding Ecosystems and Predicting Ecosystem Change: Ensuring the Nation's Economic and Environmental Future;
  2. Climate Variability and Change: Clarifying the Record and Assessing Consequences; and
  3. A National Hazards, Risk, and Resilience Assessment Program: Ensuring the Long-Term Health and Wealth of the Nation.

The project is also aimed to contribute collectively to the priorities listed in the West Coast Governors Agreement (WCGA) on Ocean Health. In the course of the project, we will adjust the number and direction of the tasks/subtasks based on interest in the local communities, availability of external funds, potential for external funds, and scientific significance. This would allow us to work with external groups and be able to draw upon their expertise (e.g., contaminant levels and effects) so usefulness and impact of our work can be maximized.

Tasks and SubTasks

  • Project synthesis
  • Paleo-sedimentary Environment
  • Cross-shelf exchange over shelves of variable width in the Southern California Bight
    • Cross-shelf exchange between Newport estuary, the very narrow Newport shelf and the adjacent continental slope
    • Evolution and transport of cohesive sediment deposits on an urbanized continental shelf
  • Anthropogenic Influences on Land - Sea Exchange
    • Submarine groundwater discharge
    • Contaminants, environmental impact, and transport
  • Coastal Changes in Southern CA Urban Ocean
    • CoSMoS Modeling
    • Coastal Change in the Santa Barbara Littoral Cell
    • Sand Provenance in the Santa Barbara Littoral Cell
    Photo of San Gabriel River
San Gabriel River, Southern California

Products, Results, and Publications


  • Beach Erosion Authority for Clean Oceans and Nourishment (BEACON)/POC: Comati, Gerald
  • California Department of Boating and Waterways/POC: Sterrett, Kim
  • City of Carpinteria/POC: Roberts, Matt
  • USACE Los Angeles District South Pacific Division/POC: Schlosser, Heather
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute/POC: Paull, Charlie
  • National Park Service (NPS)/POC: Beavers, Rebecca
  • Orange County Sanitation District/POC: Robertson, George
  • Coastal Watch/POC: Revell, Dave
  • County of Santa Barbara/POC: Lindley, Richard
  • Noble Consultants/POC: Moore, Jon
  • Scripps Institute of Oceanography/POC: O'Reilly, Bill
  • University of California, Santa Barbara/POC: Pierre, Christoph
  • California State Parks/POC: Brown, Syd
  • City of Ventura/POC: Raives, Rick


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Page Last Modified: 20 May 2013 (lzt)