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Climate and Environment

Climate Change Is Going To Do A Major Number On How We Get Around LA

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A mudslide has shut down Pacific Coast Highway in both directions from Busch Drive to the county line, according to Caltrans. (Courtesy Los Angeles County Fire Department)
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California is slowly planning for the long term effects of climate change.

Today, the state's Department of Transportation released its climate change vulnerability assessments for much of Southern California, which examine how extreme weather could impact infrastructure like roads and bridges. Basically, how we get around.

THE DETAILS

Some of the biggest concerns found in the reports include the possibility of:

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  • More frequent wildfires which could result in roads and neighborhoods being shut down.
  • More landslides, which can destroy bridges and thoroughfares.
  • More intense precipitation swings which could mean additional flooding and erosion.
  • More hot days, which could mean asphalt has to be replaced more often.

WHY IT MATTERS

While the reports are short on details about threats to specific pieces of infrastructure (those assessments will come later), they reflect on some problems that Caltrans is already dealing with, like what's happening along our coast.

According to the state's sea level rise guidance, our area of coast could see between roughly 2 and 6 feet of rise, by the year 2100, depending on the model.

Rising sea levels and increasingly intense storm surges could break down PCH from below, while an increased risk of wildfires and landslides, could destroy it from above.

A real life example is the threat to Las Tunas beach, just north of Topanga, where Caltrans has already made moves to protect PCH due to erosion.

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Caltrans moved to protect PCH above Las Tunas by installing rocks and asphalt. (Courtesy of Caltrans)

To protect the road and its supporting cliffs, they added rock reinforcements. It's worked, so far, but the beach has completely disappeared in the process. The loss of beach is often an implication of armoring.

As things get worse, the agency (along with other stakeholders) will have to decide whether to protect existing roads and pieces of infrastructure -- or to move them completely. Anticipate long drawn out legal battles.

THE CONTEXT

"We are in the early early stages of really trying to understand what the scale and ramifications might be," said Chris Schmidt, Southern California Planning and Modal Programs Manager at Caltrans, when asked about Highway 1 back in June.

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"Is there a specific plan in place to make absolutely sure that what's there today will be there 20, 30 or 40 years, or 50 years from now? No. There's too much happening, too much change is underway," he said. "It's really even hard to absorb the rate of change that is occuring. The level of threat is escalating at rates that even the climate change scientists did not anticipate. So, even our best estimates of what might happen may be severely wrong."

WHAT'S NEXT

The process for planning around climate change is a long one, but especially important for an agency that sometimes works in 50 plus year time frames.

When asked about the most challenging aspect of planning around PCH, Schmidt said, "Money and political will."

The vulnerability assessments are just the first part for the agency when it comes to planning for climate change. Next, they'll identify specific pieces of threatened infrastructure and figure out how they want to proceed.