Retreating Shorelines: What California Can Teach Us

As climate change brings rising seas, more extreme storms, and increased flooding, coastal communities need to act—or risk disappearing, a new book says

Rosanna Xia, A11, an environment reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has traveled California’s 1,200-mile coast to learn how people living on the threatened shoreline are responding to the effects of climate change. The result is her first book. California Against the Sea: Vision for Our Vanishing Coastline (Heyday).

Book cover for California Against the Sea by Rosanna Xia

Praise for "California Against the Sea" includes a shoutout to Xia's "virtuosic blend of propulsive boots-on-the-ground storytelling, explanatory reporting, and genuine curiosity and love for place" from Lisa Wells, author of "Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World."

The book could not be more timely, arriving in tandem with climate-related reports of the hottest summer on recorda sweltering summer for the entire Northern Hemisphereand the release of a report by the U.S. Geological Survey that predicts rising tides could erode up to 75 percent of California's beaches by 2100.

That beaches are vanishing, that they are being beaten back by an expanding, warming ocean, is well known to Xia. In 2020, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for explanatory reporting about the disappearing California coast. She shared the distinction with Swetha Kannan and data reporter Terry Castleman, E16, who created an accompanying game, The sea is rising, can you save your town?

For most shoreline communities, rising sea levels are daunting, and often divisive. Xia offers a close look at the full spectrum of sea-level responses, insights, and concerns as expressed by professionals, elected officials, and citizens.

She visits with people like Gary Griggs, an oceanographer and coastal geologist, who muses on the impermanence of the colorful beach town of Capitola, as it experiences severe cliff erosion, and people like Mayor John Keener in Pacifica, where the most recent El Niño season cost $16 million, “no small change for a town whose $36 million operating budget relies mostly on property taxes.” And people like Sara Cuadra, the Bay Foundation’s “plant whisperer,” who is trying to bring back disappearing dunes by planting seeds that will “one day bloom into red sand verbena.”

Xia uses those personal stories to vividly render climate change in California. “People remember stories better than data points,” she says, sharing a guiding principle that goes back to her first reporting assignments writing about Chinese-speaking communities. “I’ve noticed this greater awakening within climate journalism: You have to tend to not just the intellectual journey of the readerbut also the emotional journey,” she says. “And with a book, its also thinking about the philosophical journey: What does it mean for all of us as we look to the future?”

The California coast is a long way from where Xia grew up, in the Boston suburb of Boxborough. A quantitative economics and international studies double major at Tufts, she would find her true calling in a Communications and Media Studies minor that translated her “innate love of learning and writing” into a potential career. She jump started that career 13 years ago with a Dow Jones News Fund summer internship at the LA Times, and after graduation was hired into a six-month training program.

With the LA Times recently expanding its coverage of climate change through a new section called California Climate, she is now one of many reporters covering the state’s “consequences of climate change: floods, droughts, wildfires, sea-level rise, and extreme weather.”

Xia returned to Tufts in September to give a Hoch Cunningham Environmental Lecture and speak with students about environmental writing and her non-linear path to journalism. (A former star sprinter and captain of the women’s varsity track and field team, she also dropped by the office of her former coach, Kristen Morwick.) She also took time to talk with Tufts Now about her work and the lessons we can learn from California’s reckoning with rising tides.

Tufts Now: This book was a big undertaking; what prompted you to write it?

Rosanna Xia: My hope with this book is that it would help guide and deepen the conversation not just about sea level rise, but also about the systemspolitical, economic, and socialthat got us into this situation in the first place. Having a book-length project to explore some of the intersections between climate change and social change has been really powerful.

As you thought about writing a book, what was most important to you?

I asked myself: Who is missing from this conversation? Who has been overlooked? Who should be part of this conversation if only we knew how to frame it in a more inclusive, expansive way?

Going beyond just science and policy, Indigenous wisdom is really important. I wanted to weave Indigenous knowledge into a conversation that has been so grounded in Western science—and in a way that doesn’t show them in conflict with each other, but in conversation with each other.

I also hope to reset the way we think about the ocean. The ocean is alive. It has a spirit. It’s something that gives us great joy when we're going to the beach, but it is also a force that needs to be respected.

The science behind sea level rise seems urgent and yet I wonder if most people grasp the facts behind the rising tides.

What is important to understand is that our reliance on carbon fuels has been heating up our oceans with greater and greater intensity. The ocean covers more than 70 percent of our planet and has absorbed about 90% of the excess heat from our excess carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution. That warming has been devastating to marine life, and coastal communities are increasingly in the way of this rising, overheating water. Off the California coast, we’re looking at possibly six or seven feet of sea level rise by end of century if we continue business as usual.  

A theme running through the book is the tension between the sea and people. As you write, much of the California coastline is populated but “the rising sea is once again demanding change.” How do we change? Or can we?

We have a hard reality check to reckon with in terms of our built environment and how we’ve hardened the shoreline. Resetting our relationship with the ocean is not going to be easy. There’s a chapter, for example, where I look at San Francisco and how so much of the city’s bay side was built on top of a former marsh. We drained it, filled it up, and built a gigantic wall to hold back the bay. But now the water is trying to move back in. For a city as iconic as San Francisco, are we really going to let the city go?

There’s no easy answer, but we have to start asking those questions. We have to take the first step of recognizing that we took land from the water and now the water wants it back. How much are we willing to pay to hold this line—and who’s going to pay those costs? What sacrifices are being made for the sake of maintaining whatever it is that we choose to keep?

What is the most important point that you think often gets lost in discussions of sea level rise?

We need to think about sea level rise from a frequency standpoint. If a home or a critical road or other critical infrastructure floods 25 percent of the year, twice a month, or every king tide, at what point does that mean it’s essentially underwater? Do we actually have to wait for six feet of sea level rise?

Another disconnect is seeing our responses to sea level rise as a one-time action, rather than a longer-term process of moving toward a different, more sustainable future. We need to recognize this longer time horizon where, 50, 60, 70 years from now, things are going to be different. And the longer we wait, the less time we'll have to prepare and avert disaster.

You say at one point that California can speak to greater truths. Could you expand on that?

California’s coast is more than 1,200 miles long—imagine going from Boston all the way to Georgia—and there are so many different landscapes along this coastline. We’ve got cliffs, river plains, wetlands, sandy beaches and cobble beaches, and all these in-between ecosystems that are meant to sometimes be underwater. We have houses situated on bluffs and houses situated below sea level along river plains and atop filled-in marshlands.

Everything that these built environments experience with sea level rise in California can apply to places around the world and across the country. And ultimately, the philosophical journey that California is now going on is an interesting one for other places to look to for answers. Are there different ways to live with the ocean and to be in a better relationship with the ocean? 

The fact that California is able to start these conversations can also be a guide for others. I’m hoping it will help more people take courage to start their own conversations.

Did this book change your perspective about the ocean?

What I realized is my relationship to the land changed. I think I’ve always known on a deeper level that the ocean cannot be controlled, and the ocean is this force that is both beautiful and terrifying, but I am learning that land itself is supposed to move as well. Being on the coast so much, walking along beaches and seeing wetlands, I recognized that land is also like a tide that rises and falls. The coast itself is an impermanent place.

A lot of division can happen around climate change. What are your thoughts on making progress toward a common conversation, given its urgency?

There’s that famous quote by Washington Governor Jay Inslee: “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.

Our future is closer than we realize, and the instant gratification actions we have taken in the past will not work. That might not be palatable to someone who is just investing in a home for their lifetimes. That might not be palatable to someone who would rather live in the now than to think about the world that they won’t be living in. But we all have a duty to make sure that the world that we love and cherish today still exists for generations to come.

Back to Top