Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Coastal Adaptation

Main content start

Project Goals

Rising seas and battering winter storms under a changing climate are reshaping California’s coastline. This shifting line in the sand demands an informed response from coastal resource managers and local governments, who are charged with protecting their constituents from coastal hazards while ensuring the sustained protection of beaches and the public’s access to them. Proactive climate adaptation planning can help local governments deliberatively manage their coastlines and perhaps even avoid the worst effects of anticipated flooding and other hazards.

Since 2010, the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, in collaboration with the Natural Capital Project, has assisted coastal decision makers with incorporating an ecosystem service approach—one that includes the multiple benefits natural systems provide to people—into their proactive climate adaptation planning.

Our Process

In an evolving multi-year engagement, COS’s climate adaptation team engaged directly with city, county, regional, and state officials across California to co-develop policy-relevant information to aid in local-level climate adaptation planning.

We analyzed the protective role of natural habitats (e.g., dunes, wetlands) in reducing the exposure of critical water infrastructure (e.g., pipes, pumps, tide gates) to inform regional water management planning in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties.

Our team provided ecosystem service assessments with additional policy-relevant considerations for Monterey, Santa Cruz, Marin, and Sonoma Counties to assist them in their Local Coastal Program updates or amendments.

We met in person with local planners, managers, or coastal adaptation practitioners in every coastal county to identify and distill science, policy, or legal considerations to inform adaptation decision making and implementation.

What We Found

Coastal California habitats—including dense kelp forests, wetlands, and expansive beach and dune systems—play varying protective roles throughout the coast. While some larger natural systems play a relatively high role in protecting people and property in the state (e.g., high dunes in southern Monterey Bay, marsh habitat in Humboldt Bay), smaller habitat areas can provide significant reduction in coastal erosion and inundation at a local level.

Local governments can harness certain nature-based strategies, such as dune or wetland restoration, to deal with these impacts. These green solutions are potentially more cost effective, less environmentally damaging, and more resilient than competing grey armored coastal adaptation techniques. However, not all locations are suitable for nature-based responses. Coastal communities can instead employ a suite of financial and legal coastal adaptation options, in addition to suitable engineered solutions. 

Some of these coastal adaptation strategies are limited by place-based features (e.g., geomorphology, zoning type, habitat presence, degree of development) while others are not. There is momentum at the California state and local levels to advance climate adaptation planning, yet uncertainty pervades these opportunities and will drive the need for more guidance and information in the future.

Our Products

Consultations with planners and local government officials around the state revealed knowledge gaps regarding coastal adaptation, particularly around strategy effectiveness and potential legal issues. To address these gaps, COS co-developed a set of coastal adaptation policy briefs, a beta online viewer, and a compilation of relevant data sets, all tailored to the feedback and needs of local communities.

Policy Briefs
Our team collaborated with the Stanford Law School to compile seventeen highly-distilled policy briefs on adaptation strategy topics identified by coastal planners and others working in this field. These briefs highlight tradeoffs, legal considerations, and examples for each topic.

Online Viewer
We co-developed a user-friendly beta online viewer that allows coastal planners to interact with the results of our work, including a statewide analysis of the protective role of coastal habitats and a synthesis of locations with enabling conditions for specific adaptation strategies.

Data Resources Download
The statewide results from our InVEST Coastal Vulnerability Analysis as well as our coastal zoning layer are available for public download.


What's Next?

We developed a scalable approach to linking coastal vulnerability analysis with land use law and policy decision-making processes. Our work has been scaled-up to city, county, multi-county and state applications. Each iteration reflects an evolution in our methodology for bridging climate and ecosystem services science, law, and policy in diverse geographies and decision contexts.


Eric Hartge: Project Lead

Gregg Verutes: Design and Science Lead

Jesse Reiblich: Legal Lead

Lisa Wedding: Analytical Lead


Katie Arkema, Meg Caldwell, Gretchen Daily, Ashley Erickson, Dave Fisher, Don Gourlie, Rob Griffin, Greg Guannel, Anne Guerry, Sierra Killian, Suzanne Langridge, Winn McEnery, Molly Melius, Monica Moritsch, Erin Prahler, Sarah Reiter, Mary Ruckelshaus, Giselle Schmitz, Jess Silver, Cole Sito, Debbie Sivas, Hilary Walecka, Jessica Williams

This multi-year project was made possible through funding contributions from the David & Lucille Packard Foundation and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment through the Realizing Environmental Innovation Program.