Winter storms in 2016 brought large swells and heavy rains to coastal California, and often coincided with extremely high king tides. Images of flooded coastal trails and roadways, and collapsing seaside cliffs during these events provided a stark reminder that coastal communities are already experiencing the impacts of rising sea levels. The Center for Ocean Solutions (COS) is working with resource managers and planners around the state to identify and highlight the ways that coastal habitats, such as wetlands and sand dunes, can mitigate against the effects of sea level rise and help reduce the vulnerability of the state’s coastline. Our ultimate goal is to support decision-makers in their efforts to manage coastal resources in a changing climate, so they are better able to respond and adapt to increasingly hazardous events as we enter a future facing climate change.

COS initiated this effort in 2010 by bridging climate science and coastal planning in Monterey Bay. With funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we partnered with the Natural Capital Project to connect our “ocean and coastal science to policy” experience with their “ecosystem services science in decision making” toolset to aid coastal adaptation planning at a local scale. We analyzed the role of coastal habitats in buffering and reducing the exposure of critical water infrastructure to sea level rise through the Integrated Regional Water Management Planning process in the Monterey Bay, with the intention of scaling up the “lessons learned” from this work to broader audiences and other geographies.

Building from that experience, we expanded our focal geography from Monterey Bay to the central and north coasts and shifted the decision context from water management to local coastal planning. We partnered with four counties (Monterey, Santa Cruz, Marin, and Sonoma) to provide similar analyses regarding the protective role of coastal habitats as well as the other beneficial ecosystem services they provide. In addition, we distilled complex coastal adaptation policy questions becoming increasingly relevant for local management.

Work with these counties concluded last year, and lessons learned will help inform our current and future climate adaptation work. The coastal planning audience and efforts in California have significantly expanded through an injection of funding at the state level to better understand the most vulnerable areas of the coastline. With this expansion in interest and need comes the next set of hurdles. Currently, coastal communities have a stronger understanding of where their coastlines are most exposed. Yet, they have limited capabilities and capacity to define and implement legally defensible strategies.

COS is now focused on this disparity as we scale up from local planning along the central and north coasts to statewide prioritization of adaptation strategies throughout California. Our coastal adaptation project team recently traveled to scout highly vulnerable areas along the coast and met with regional planners to better understand the major policy approaches they are considering and the challenges they face.

Through this approach, we are collecting a wealth of knowledge about new policy barriers as well as the best available legal strategies to address them. Ultimately, the resources we collect, distill, and share, will help planners and resource managers throughout the state pursue and implement strategies that foster a resilient coastline for future generations.

California is fertile ground for progressive, environmentally minded actions that can proliferate throughout the nation and beyond. The center’s coastal climate adaptation work echoes that model. As we look toward the future, the center will continue this work and build upon the lessons learned from this long-term investment, which will in turn help inform broader coastal adaptation decisions at the federal and international levels.


A lack of publicly available information about the chemical composition of fuel mined from tar sands hampers efforts to safeguard marine habitats. A new analysis recommends that officials gain a better understanding of the fuel’s environmental impacts before setting regulations.

Read the paper


As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to overhaul energy and environmental regulations, a troubling question hangs over an emerging source of unconventional oil Trump has indicated he wants to expand. Bitumen – a tar-like fuel extracted from oil sands in Canada and elsewhere – is often stored in coastal areas and transported by ship. So, what are its potential effects on valuable ocean environments?

The short answer, according to a studypublished Dec. 20 in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, is: we have no idea. The study recommends collecting more information about the possible environmental effects of bitumen before making regulatory decisions.The Athabasca oil sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada, are a major producer of heavy crude oil. 

Although a great deal of research has focused on the effects of conventional oil spills, little information exists about potential impacts from spills of unconventional oil derived from the bitumen extracted from oil sands. Diluted bitumen is chemically distinct from conventional oil, and its composition varies according to the chemicals used to make the viscous material flow. Because manufacturers are not required to fully report the makeup of these chemical mixtures, little is known about bitumen products’ effects on marine life and food chains.

“There just isn’t enough science in the public eye to answer questions about the risk bitumen poses to the ocean,” said study lead author Stephanie Green, a Banting postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University. “We found almost no research about bitumen’s effects on marine species.”

These knowledge gaps make it impossible to create effective policies on oil sands development, transport and disaster response in the ocean. These issues are at the center of energy and environmental policy debate in Canada, America’s key source of oil sands products. Canada’s federal government recently approved expanding transport of diluted bitumen from inland deposits to the Pacific coast via pipeline.

“In this context, policymakers risk confusing the lack of evidence for particular environmental effects with evidence that there is no risk,” Green said.

The first-of-its-kind global analysis considered the footprint of existing and proposed oil sands developments and coastal transport routes, to reveal 15 different types of stress to ocean environments. These stresses range from oil spills and ship-animal collisions to ocean acidification and temperature increases caused by climate change, with oil sands products contributing more greenhouse gas per barrel than light crude oil throughout its lifecycle. In addition to noting the lack of information on many of these impacts, Green and colleagues concluded that many of these stresses are overlapping. Up to 10 of the 15 impact pathways co-occur within the footprint of proposed coastal tanker routes, but there are few scientific studies examining the effect of two or more impacts arising simultaneously.

“The gaps in scientific understanding we identified cast doubt on claims that risks can be effectively managed or mitigated,” said co-author Wendy Palen of Simon Fraser University. “Projects should not be considered in isolation, and multiple types of impacts need to be considered simultaneously. Everything is connected.”

To rectify the situation, the study’s authors recommend using a framework that can assess the consequences of multiple environmental impacts and their cumulative effects, including the ultimate fate of the petroleum products in the atmosphere. The authors urge scientists, governments, and industry to work together to fill information gaps so that the risks of such projects are known ahead of regulatory decisions in the United States and Canada.

“The findings in our paper are part of a broader effort by independent scientists to pull together what is known from various fields of research to inform sound decisions about energy and environmental policy,” said co-author Thomas Sisk of Northern Arizona University.

The Center for Ocean Solutions is an interdisciplinary center for ocean science, policy, and law at Stanford, in partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Co-authors of “Oil sands and the marine environment: current knowledge and future challenges” include researchers at Simon Fraser University, Oregon State University, Northern Arizona University, and the Hakai Institute.

Media Contacts:

Stephanie Green
Center of Ocean Solutions
(778) 808-0758

Rob Jordan
Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
(650) 721-1881


Header Image Credit: Michael Collier


Where: Main Lecture Hall, Long Marine Lab, UC Santa Cruz
When: Friday, January 27th, 5:30-7:30pm
Register HERE by January 26th

Marine fisheries and coastal communities around the world are experiencing increasing rates of change and uncertainty generated by climate change, global markets, and other large-scale processes. Understanding how these local systems can anticipate, adapt, and respond to change requires interdisciplinary science, novel research frameworks and techniques, and direct engagement with local communities on the ground. Elena Finkbeiner shares her academic trajectory and research experience in the social-ecological sciences, exploring topics such as sustainability, resilience, collective action, and well-being in small-scale fisheries of the California Current.


Speaker: Elena Finkbeiner

Elena Finkbeiner is an early career fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions and a postdoctoral research fellow at Hopkins Marine Station. Her research explores how social-ecological systems can anticipate, respond, and adapt to change, and seeks to identify governance approaches that can achieve both environmental sustainability and human wellbeing. She uses small-scale fisheries as a model system for studying these processes, drawing from interdisciplinary science and a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods, including surveys, interviews, analysis of official fisheries catch data, and game theory experiments. Elena earned her PhD in biology at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, Masters in Environmental Management at Duke University, and BS in ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz.




Elizabeth is the science communications intern at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions. She joined the team in October 2016. She has a Bachelor of Science in Marine Science from California State University Monterey Bay. During her undergraduate years, Elizabeth was involved in a data collection project that evaluated the effectiveness of the Marine Protected Areas in Monterey Bay. In her junior and senior year, she conducted a research project north of Santa Cruz and in Big Sur that focused on the direct and indirect community interactions between a common intertidal alga and invertebrates. She is now in her third year at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories under Dr. Michael Graham working towards a Masters of Science in Marine Ecology with a concentration in the biology of seaweeds.

During her time at CSUMB and into her time at MLML, Elizabeth volunteered as an adult mentor at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with the Student Oceanography Club. Her main role was to provide guidance and direction to junior high school students conducting research. Elizabeth also worked as an Ambassador for the Monterey Bay Aquarium from 2014-2015 providing interactive interpretations of the exhibits, behind the scenes tours, and communicating scientific concepts such as sustainability and conservation. In her last few months she also created and implemented interpretive services for deaf guests using American Sign Language.

Elizabeth hopes to take an interdisciplinary approach to conservation and sustainability through effective and entertaining communication with the public. In her free time she enjoys scuba diving, hiking with her dog, camping and reading a good book.

Contact Information:


Phone: 714-717-1616