Following nature’s lead to protect California beaches and grasslands

Following nature's lead to protect California beaches and grasslands
A Climate Action Seed Grant project is examining ways to utilize dunes as a nature-based solution to coastal flooding. Beach dunes are mechanically robust, self-renewing, and occur naturally along many coastlines, enabling them to serve as bulwarks between infrastructure and rising sea levels. Image credit: Courtesy Ian Walker

By Caroline Champlin

Since he was a kid, Ian Walker has been obsessed with the beach.

“There are very few beaches I’ve met that I haven’t liked,” he said. “The coastal zone is the most dynamic landscape on earth. I’ll put that out there and I’ll arm wrestle anybody.”

Walker is a self-proclaimed beach bum, studying California’s iconic coastline as a geography professor at UC Santa Barbara. While thinking about beaches all day sounds idyllic, with the climate changing, the job means grappling with a grim future.

Rising sea levels may leave the state with a third of the beaches we have today, according to Walker. He encourages fellow beach lovers to find their favorite spot on this map to see photos taken during king tides. In 25 years, those exceptionally high tides could be the norm.

“It’s coming. It’s happening,” Walker said. “I’m not trying to be a doomsayer here, but what I am saying is that we are not used to the amount of sea level rise that we will see in the next generation.”

Following nature's lead to protect California beaches and grasslands
Professor Ian Walker of UC Santa Barbara is leading the dune assessment project. The project includes an effort to map the locations and extent of existing coastal dunes with GPS equipment. Image credit: Courtesy Ian Walker

Dunes were a typical part of Southern California beaches for most of history. Over thousands of years, wind swept sand into plants at the shoreline, forming vast rolling sandscapes along the coast.

When Walker visits his favorite stretches of coastline, he likes to imagine what these places looked like before humans made them over. For one thing, there was a lot more sand.

Many dunes were destroyed to make space for condos, burger spots, and sometimes, international airports like LAX. Those kinds of waterfront developments are now at dire risk of flooding.

Bringing back dunes, Walker suggests, could ameliorate that flood risk. His research explores the benefits of restoring dunes, sometimes where nature had them in the first place. The goal is to improve coastal protection from erosion and flooding while also creating habitat for native plants and animals.

In partnership with the state, the University of California is funding research projects like Walker’s because they’re driven by nature-based solutions—an approach using lessons learned from nature to guide conservation and improve resilience to climate change.

Following nature's lead to protect California beaches and grasslands
Fixed-wing drones are among the tools the dune research team is using to assess the characteristics of each dune field. Image credit: Courtesy Ian Walker

The UC is dedicating over $3 million to two projects applying nature-based solutions to a pair of iconic California landscapes: beaches and grasslands. The projects are part of the more than $80 million in California Climate Action Seed and Matching Grants awarded by the UC Office of the President in partnership with the state of California.

The partners involved in these two projects include teams from UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, Cal Poly Humboldt, and partners from the US Geological Survey, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the conservation nonprofit Point Blue, and California tribal groups. The projects will connect the latest science with ongoing restoration efforts in those ecosystems.

Walker’s beach dunes project will begin with a statewide inventory of remaining beachcoastal dunes. The team will map their footprint, gauge their vulnerability to erosion and identify which have been restored to some degree. Researchers will also be looking for endangered species living on the dunes.

Walker plans to use what they learn from existing dunes to offer land managers techniques to form new ones. Establishing a new dune is not as simple as building a giant sandcastle. Efforts to sculpt beaches are often undone by the elements.

“As opposed to just dumping sand out on the beach and having it blow in or wash away, why not have something that’s more functional?” Walker asks. He says reintroducing native plants will stimulate sand accumulation the natural way. 

Walker doesn’t expect dunes to be the singular solution to rising sea levels. For him, this project opens one more possible pathway for humans to adapt to the climate of our future.

Following nature's lead to protect California beaches and grasslands
Professor Justin Luong of California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt has received a Climate Action grant to identify and characterize drought-resistant grassland plants to encourage their use in restoration projects. Consultations with tribal groups have helped ensure a focus on culturally important species. Image credit: Justin Luong

Tending California’s upside-down forests

Beaches may loom large in popular impressions of the state, but when it comes to plants, it’s hard to get more California than a poppy.

True to its name, the California poppy is a standard resident of grassland habitats across the state. They exemplify a principle California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt professor Justin Luong likes to remind people: “Grasslands are not just grass,” he says.

Grassland ecosystems support hundreds of species, from annual wildflowers to bulbs to perennials. 

Grass species can be unloved in naturalist circles because they’re challenging to identify, but Luong argues they’re worth caring about, too.

“Grasslands are like an upside-down forest,” Luong says. “They have these massive structures we just don’t see.”

Even small plants can have extensive root systems going down 20 feet, according to Luong. He appreciates grasses because they can be a sort of wingman for flowers. Grasses improve water retention and pull moisture from deep underground so nearby plants can drink. 

Following nature's lead to protect California beaches and grasslands
California’s grasslands are biologically diverse places that can host a wide variety of native wildflowers. The riot of color on this coastal prairie comes from Johnny jump ups (Viola pedunculata), checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and miniature lupine (Lupinus bicolor). Image credit: Justin Luong

With a climate action grant from the University of California, Luong is leading a project to protect coastal grasslands from drought intensified by climate change. The goal is to determine which species of grassland plants are best prepared to withstand periods of drought by collaborating with habitat restoration teams. Researchers will analyze the traits of a variety of species, including less-common plants seldom used in restoration efforts. Then, using what they learn from nature, land managers restoring grassland areas will be encouraged to plant a more diverse selection of well-adapted species. These plantings should improve both the biodiversity and the resilience of grassland ecosystems.

One partner on the project is the Wiyot tribe of Arcata. Tribal members are helping select culturally significant plants the team will study.

“One of the main reasons the Wiyot tribe is so into restoration is the cultural traditions associated with native plant species,” said Adam Canter, head of natural resources for the tribe. 

Following nature's lead to protect California beaches and grasslands
By drawing groundwater to the surface with their deep roots, native bunchgrass species such as purple needlegrass make water more available to other grassland species. Image credit: Justin Luong

Many of those species are bulbs, like soaproot. This widespread plant has a fibrous bulb that can be used to make soap as well as glue, brushes, and even a stunning agent for catching fish. Grasslands also support rice root, a kind of edible lily. But according to surveys conducted with tribal members, barriers prevent them from consuming those resources.

“It’s about access to native species, native habitats,” Canter said. “There’s definitely some disdain towards having to get a permit to go out and practice activities that have been passed down from time immemorial.”

According to Canter, partnering with the university is an opportunity for tribal members to harvest from their traditional lands. In turn, the Wiyot can offer native botanic knowledge acquired over generations.

“It’s bringing in a more holistic, deep-time relationship with nature,” Canter said.

The project has already kicked off this year with a survey to better understand how to connect and engage grassland restoration managers—just in time for wildflower season.