In the late 1800s, three princes from Hawaii fashioned some surfboards from redwood trees and began teaching the first Californians to surf, or so the legend goes.
"That story is taught in schools here," said William Tysseling, executive director of the Santa Cruz, Calif., Chamber of Commerce. "That becomes part of the identity of Santa Cruz."
The jury is still out on how a changing climate will affect surfing around the world — for some places such as eastern Australia, the big waves are expected to gradually weaken — but for California’s Monterey Bay, new modeling by the U.S. Geological Survey shows waves getting even bigger, but then falling flat as sea levels rise.
Surfing in California got its start in Santa Cruz, a legacy the city of about 60,000 is proud of, but if the models play out, the future of this hobby and sport faces uncertainty.
To create perfect surfing conditions, nature needs to provide the right amount of deep-ocean swells, peculiar ocean-floor geography and wind.
Last month, a team of USGS researchers released a report with calculations on global wave models for three Hawaiian islands and 22 other islands in the Pacific Ocean. This report is the first of a handful that will eventually encompass the Arctic, West and East coasts, which will give engineers and policymakers data on future wave patterns, an often missing piece of the climate change planning puzzle.
The scientists used four global climate models that included low-level wind data, which is important for the generation of waves, and ran them with two future climate scenarios: the world if emissions taper off midcentury and the world under business as usual.
Taking the steam out of Steamer Lane
In general, what they found was that waves are expected to increase in size from now until about midcentury, but the direction of the waves is also expected to change, said Curt Storlazzi, a research geologist and oceanographer with the USGS in Santa Cruz. Peak wave periods, the amount of time between waves and another measure of intensity, is expected to increase east of the International Date Line and decrease west of it.
Waves try to hit the shoreline as parallel to the coast as possible, which contributes to prime surf in Santa Cruz, Storlazzi said.
"Our best surfing days in Santa Cruz are when the waves come from the west," Storlazzi said. Projections on waves for the West Coast are set to be released next, and those same models were used to forecast what will happen in Monterey Bay. "If they come more from the northwest, that will mean less wave energy directly impacting us. It’ll be more like a glancing blow."
Coupled with sea-level rise, which he said we know is going to happen, the famed surfing spots in Santa Cruz, like Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point, could decrease in quality.
If sea level rises, Storlazzi explained, the waves will have to break closer to shore, creating surf that is "messy and irregular." Big waves don’t matter if they break in the wrong places.
Of the four main ways climate change affects surfing — by shifting storms that generate waves, raising sea levels, through ocean acidification destroying reefs and leaving humans to react in adaptive ways — it’s how humans cope with climate change on the coast that is most affecting surfers right now, said Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit grass-roots organization dedicated to the protection of oceans and beaches.
"If sea-level rise is projected for 6 feet on a natural coastline, surfers are prepared to lose some spots and get some new ones in the process," he said. "But if we wall it all off, that’s way more likely to impact surfing in a negative way."
As beaches erode, the practice of beach replenishment — dredging and dumping sand to extend beaches and reclaim them from the ocean — is also destroying surf in some communities.
Longer drives to catch waves
John Doerfler, a surfer of six years and vice chairman of the Delaware chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, said a group of Delaware surfers regularly makes the drive an hour south to Maryland in order to catch waves like what they used to be able to find back on their home beaches.
When sand is dumped on beaches, the process destroys the surf break, Doerfler said. If you imagine a natural beach that hasn’t been replenished, you would see waves breaking somewhere out in the ocean. That’s because the wave comes in, hits the sandbar, breaks slowly and rolls out. That process creates the good surf. When sand is added to a beach, it is dumped over the natural sandbar, meaning all the wave energy will hit the beach, and that’s where the waves will break.
In some instances, the use of coarser-grain sand that has gravel in it also makes beaches painful places to hang out.
It’s not just the extra drive time that has Doerfler bummed, but also the way the management plan for beaches has been handled.
"When we lose these spots, it takes a piece of you with it," he said. "It’s not just losing the waves, you’re losing the good times you had there. It’s not just the surfing, it’s the people you meet on the water, on the beach."
Because they’re out in the water, Nelsen said surfers are a good indicator species for the impacts of climate change.
"It’s very subtle shifts in weather and coastal impacts that affects surfing," he said. "Surfers perceive that change before others. They really pay attention to water temperatures and wind."
What’s harder to discern is what can be attributed to natural variability and what changes are being caused by climate change.
"Making the connection for surfers between climate change and what they’re seeing is what we call a slow-motion disaster. Sea level is rising 3 to 5 millimeters per year," he said. "It’s like a frog boiling in a pot of water."
For a long time, the surfers and the surfing industry have gotten a free pass on the issue of sustainability, which ties into the ways climate change affects the sport, said Michael Stewart, co-founder of the nonprofit Sustainable Surf.
Since the organization’s founding in 2011, the group has piloted an environmental certification process for professional surfing competitions and has focused on getting surfboard makers to create more eco-friendly boards.
Dude, get an ‘eco-friendly’ board
The Ecoboard Project, which has been endorsed by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, provides the first independent "eco-label" for surfboards. These boards must be made with recycled and renewable materials, at least 25 percent recycled foam or biological content, and with a resin made from a minimum of 15 percent biological content with low volatile organic compounds. More than 30 board makers and shapers have signed on to the program, according to Sustainable Surf’s website.
By targeting the environmental impact of surfboards — or "low-hanging fruit," as Stewart calls them — the organization has been able to directly connect the impacts of climate change to those who love to surf. Having the option to purchase a surfboard with less environmental impact is a tangible thing someone can do to reduce his or her emissions, the very things driving climate change, which is altering surfing, he said.
In addition, the environmental footprint of the epoxy used to make a surfboard alone is fairly emissions heavy. One life-cycle analysis estimates the average 5.5 pounds of epoxy used to make a short board creates more than 600 pounds of CO2 over the board’s lifetime.
"Greenpeace is pushing climate change and polar bears drowning in the Arctic, which is true and valid, but not a compelling lens to view it through if you’re a 22-year-old kid in Southern California," he said. "Let’s look at it through the surfboard, the most core thing to a surfer."
That hippie, laid-back, surfer dude stereotype Hollywood loves to perpetuate is also a perfect way to sell taking action on a changing climate, Stewart said.
"Who doesn’t want Jack Johnson’s life?" he added.
Prepare for a ‘tipping point’
Surfers, he argue, eat healthy, get exercise through surfing, often employ energy- and water-saving techniques in their homes, and often live lives less cluttered by objects, all things almost anyone who cares about the oceans and climate change can agree are good.
"We think we’re at a tipping point right now, with environmental science being so clear and obvious and people’s interest being peaked enough," he said. "They’re waiting for something to be cool and relevant to their life, and surfing could be it."
Short of implementing significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions, USGS scientist Storlazzi said those who want to surf later this century near Santa Cruz will most likely find that their swells will have moved north of Santa Cruz to Oregon or Washington, where there is less coastal infrastructure.
Left unimpeded by sea walls and other man-made impediments, the coastline would naturally migrate, and good surfing with it.
"Now that we have armored the shoreline, when sea level goes up, nature can’t adjust for that," he said.
Still, he estimates areas farther south in Southern California — San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara — will probably fare even worse than Santa Cruz.
Tysseling said the city thinks a lot about what losing its surf breaks might mean for business and what rising sea levels will mean for downtown, but he doesn’t think Santa Cruz will ever be able to shake surfing from its blood.
"It forms a piece of who you are as a community," he said. "Maybe a generation from now, maybe there will be other communities that grow up around surfing."