Gary Griggs


Gary Griggs is Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz. Known for his expertise in coastal geology and oceanography, Gary writes a popular bi-weekly newspaper column, Our Ocean Backyard, and is a frequent contact for news and media on questions of climate change, sea-level rise, and coastal erosion. 

Gary is the author or coauthor of 13 books. He has served on several National Academy of Science Committees, received numerous awards for his work as an educator and scientist, and has the distinction of being the only scientist to be named a Coastal Hero by the California Coastal Commission and Sunset magazine. A native Californian, Gary has made Santa Cruz County his home for 55 years.

The best books on the crisis at the shoreline

Why am I passionate about this?

Virtually my entire life has been spent within a few minutes or perhaps an hour from the shoreline and whether surfing, lifeguarding, beach combing, or traveling coasts around the planet, this narrow zone is one of constant change and energy that continues to inspire and intrigue me. My career as a professor has focused on coastal change and the challenges that shoreline processes pose to our coastally-focused civilization. Fifty-five years of teaching at the University of California Santa Cruz on the shoreline of Monterey Bay has led to 14 books and over 400 newspaper columns on Our Ocean Backyard focused on the coast and its changes, and there is always more to observe, study, and enjoy.


Recent Papers

Beach Nourishment: A Critical Look


Beach nourishment has been the main strategy for responding to shoreline recession along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts for a century. During the last 100 years, $15.7 billion, primarily with federal funds through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been spent placing 1.2 billion m3 (1.58 billion yd3) of sand on the beaches of 475 coastal communities. More than half of this has gone to the states of New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Florida. The sand volumes, extent of beach nourished, and costs have all increased over time. Despite the expenditures, the life span of individual nourished beaches has been relatively short in most cases, as evidenced by the frequent repeated replenishment of most sites. Three North Carolina beaches have had sand added more than 20 times, and one of these has been nourished 31 times. Although beach nourishment has been beneficial in terms of recreational value and coastal property protection, the short life spans and the need to continually renourish most beaches, along with the environmental impacts, land subsidence, occurrence of short-term extreme events, and an accelerating rise in sea level, provide a strong rationale for terminating federal expenditures and dependence on short-term beach nourishment and planning for the inevitable long-term necessity of moving back from the shoreline.

The past, present, and future of Seacliff State Beach: Adapting to long-term sea level rise on California’s Central Coast 


In a display of the increasingly destructive impact of climate change and sea level rise, in January 2023 unusually severe storms hit California’s west coast and devastated the infrastructure at Monterey Bay’s Seacliff State Beach. Additional severe storms in December 2023 compounded the damage. This article frames the potential application of a new approach for recovery planning along the California coast by examining historical failures, accelerating threats, and the economic and societal factors that create obstacles to long-term success at places such as Seacliff. While each situation differs, the Seacliff State Beach challenge is representative of an ever-widening dilemma faced by many seaside communities. The possibilities for coastal adaptation at Seacliff, based in part on California’s innovative state policies, provide an opportunity to consider sustainable and equitable planning approaches for local communities, government, business, and ultimately future generations.

The California Coast and Living Shorelines—A Critical Look


California and most other coastlines around the world are being impacted by both long- term sea-level rise and short-term extreme events. Due to California’s long and intensively developed coastline, it is an important area for evaluating responses to these challenges. The predominant historic approach to coastal erosion in California and globally has been the construction of hard coastal armoring such as seawalls and rock revetments. The concept of living shorelines—defined as using natural elements like plants, sand, or rocks to stabilize the coastline—has been widely proposed as a soft or green response to coastal erosion and flooding. However, these approaches have very limited application in high-energy environments such as California’s 1100-mile-long outer coast and are not realistic solutions for protection from wave attack at high tides or long-term sea-level rise. Each of the state’s coastal communities need to identify their most vulnerable areas, develop adaptation plans, and plan eventual relocation strategies in response to an accelerating sea-level rise.

Can We Make Coastal Communities Resilient to Sea-Level Rise?


“Resilient” is a term that has gotten increasingly widespread usage in recent years as a solution or response for coastal communities to the well-documented global rise in sea level. The message that is usually conveyed seems to be that if we can make coastal communities resilient, everything will be fine and we will have solved the challenge of how to adapt to a rising sea. The federal government and some coastal state government agencies are providing grant money to encourage coastal communities to develop plans to become more resilient. This is an appropriate time to ask what would a resilient coastal community look like and can we actually make a community resilient to future sea-level rise, and if so, for how long?


This comprehensive account of California’s numerous and perilous natural disasters explores how a unique combination of forces has affected Californians throughout the state's history and carries a sobering message about our short disaster memories.

California has more natural hazards per square mile than any other state, but this hasn’t deterred people from moving here. Entire towns and regions frequently contend with destruction caused by active faults, earthquakes, and a myriad of other dangers, whether floods, landslides and debris flows, sea-level rise and coastal erosion, or climate change (which brings more drought, fires, and winter rainfall). As Gary Griggs demonstrates in California Catastrophes, few years go by without a disaster of some kind, and residents often rebuild in the same locations that were just destroyed.

Considering our current climate crisis and increasing environmental inequalities, the stakes are ever higher. This book dives into the history of the state’s vulnerability to natural hazards, why and where these events occur, and how Californians can better prepare going forward. A mix of photographs and maps both historical and contemporary orients readers within the state’s sprawling landscapes and provides glimpses of some of the geologic risks in each region. With the final chapter, Griggs issues a call to action and challenges readers to envision a safer, more equitable, and sustainable future.

The oceans cover 71% of the planet and pose a myriad of hazards to everyone from blue-water sailors to the casual beachcomber. From rip currents to rogue waves, the possibilities for some water-borne calamity seem endless, but in most cases a deadly outcome can be avoided or at least mitigated by having a better understanding of the risks involved. This book presents cautionary tales of the most dangerous aspects of oceans encounters, including hazardous sea life such as sharks and rays, the power of waves and high seas that can engulf an entire fleet of naval vessels. In each case the author provides actual examples of various ocean phenomena and the people who either survive or succumb to them, from competitive big-wave surfers to the passengers and crew of the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2, severely damaged by a 95-foot wave that seemed to come out of nowhere in the middle of the night. The author also addresses several well-known maritime disasters and their causes, as well as such phenomena as the so-called Bermuda Triangle. Above all, The Ominous Oceans seeks to provide a better understanding of the perilous seas, so that we will be better prepared before taking that swim or venturing off to places unknown. (2022)

The Monterey Bay Region seems to have it all—sandy beaches, sunshine, the redwoods and rivers—paradise for most of us. This scenic landscape that has drawn people here for hundreds of years owes its origins to the underlying geology and climate, and both of these are somewhat unpredictable. Earthquakes and landslides, floods and droughts, El Niños and seacliff erosion all take place more frequently than we care to remember. Yet they are a fundamental part of this landscape we inhabit and that we can expect to experience for as long as we have an Earth. (2018)

Coastal regions around the world have become increasingly crowded, intensively developed, and severely exploited. Hundreds of millions of people living in these low-lying areas are subject to short-term coastal hazards such as cyclones, hurricanes, and destruction due to El Niño, and are also exposed to the long-term threat of global sea-level rise. These massive concentrations of people expose often-fragile coastal environments to the runoff and pollution from municipal, industrial, and agricultural sources as well as the impacts of resource exploitation and a wide range of other human impacts. Can environmental impacts be reduced or mitigated and can coastal regions adapt to natural hazards? 

Coasts in Crisis is a comprehensive assessment of the impacts that the human population is having on the coastal zone globally and the diverse ways in which coastal hazards impact human settlement and development. Gary Griggs provides a concise overview of the individual hazards, risks, and issues threatening the coastal zone. (2017)

The Edge is a dramatic snapshot of the California coast's past, present, and probable future in a time of climate change and expanding human activity. Written by two marine experts who grew up on the coast, The Edge is both a celebration of the coast's natural and cultural uniqueness and a warning of the many complex changes that threaten that uniqueness.

The Pacific coast is the most iconic region of California and one of the most fascinating and rapidly changing places in the world. Densely populated, urbanized, and industrialized—but also home to wilderness with complex, fragile ecosystems—the coast is the place where humanity and nature coexist in a precarious balance that is never perfectly stable. As ocean levels rise, coastal communities are starting to erode, and entire neighborhoods have been lost to the sea. Coastal ecosystems and wildlife that were already stressed by human settlement now face new dangers, some threatening their very existence. The combined impacts of climate change, housing and commercial growth, commercial fisheries, oil drilling and production, along with environmental advocacy, all come together to define the future of the region. A masterful and sweeping synthesis of environmental and social science, The Edge presents a comprehensive portrait of natural and cultural history—the story of the people, communities, industries, ecology, and wildlife of the California coast. (2017)

In a state identified with change, California's 1,100-mile coastline lives up to the reputation. Storm waves attack sea cliffs, earthquakes trigger landslides, and ocean waves relentlessly move sand. Over the past century, humans have changed the coast too, particularly in Southern California, where some stretches of coastline have been completely altered. 

Thanks to the California Coastal Records Project, the brainchild of Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman, we now have an aerial photographic record of the entire coastline, from the redwood forests near the Oregon border to the urbanized shoreline of San Diego Bay. California Coast from the Air features 150 of the best photographs from this scientifically valuable yet truly artistic collection of more than 80,000 images. (2014)

From sunny beaches where thousands escape the summer's heat to wild and isolated rocky cliffs, California boasts one of the most spectacular and diverse shorelines in the world. Accompanied by numerous color photographs, diagrams, and maps, this guide explains why California's Pacific Coast looks and works the way it does. Gary Griggs explores the dynamic forces that have created beaches and the coastline through lively discussions of tectonics, the formation of waves, rain and wind, changing climates and sea levels, human impacts, and coastal erosion. (2010)

The scenic coastline of northern Monterey Bay has enthralled residents and visitors alike for well over a century. Yet storms and relentless waves over time have taken their toll, devouring shorelines, washing away beaches, collapsing cliffs, and battering oceanfront structures. (2006)

Crowded into the beautiful, narrow strip at the edge of the ocean, the large number of people who live near California's dynamic coastline often have little awareness of the hazards-waves, tides, wind, storms, rain, and runoff-that erode and impact the coast and claim property on a regular basis. This up-to-date, authoritative, and easy-to-use book, a geological profile of the California coast from Mexico to the Oregon border, describes the landforms and processes that shape the coastline and beaches, documents how erosion has affected development, and discusses the options that are available for dealing with coastal hazards and geologic instability. 

A completely revised and updated edition of Living with the California Coast (1985), this book features hundreds of new photographs and the latest data on human activity on the coast, on climate change, on rising seas levels, and on coastal erosion and protection. With its dramatic photographs and mile-by-mile maps, Living with the Changing California Coast is an essential resource for those intending to buy or build along the coast, those who need specific information about various coastal regions, and those who are seeking information about how this remarkable coastline has evolved. (2005)

For the three billion people on Earth who live in coastal regions, the ocean is figuratively, if not literally, “our backyard.” Many of us have sought out ocean areas in which to live, work, or vacation. The oceans enrich our lives in countless ways, but our interactions with them have not always been positive. In April 2008, Gary Griggs, a coastal geologist and oceanographer who has studied the oceans for over forty-six years and is known for making science understandable, enjoyable, and accessible to non-scientists, was asked to write a bi-weekly column, Our Ocean Backyard for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Santa Cruz sits smack on the ocean. California is in many ways defined by its coast, so it isn't surprising that so many people are drawn towards our ocean edge. Whether it is our weather and climate, or any number of recreational pursuits: fishing, surfing, sailing, jogging or walking, or just observing and exploring, the ocean provides something for all of us. In turn, engaging in each of these different pursuits generates a healthy curiosity—historical, geological, biological—as does simply living, day-to-day, in a community facing the sea. 

This collection of 170 columns explores several of these curious ocean questions. Should we worry about tsunamis here on the central coast? How did Yellow Bank Beach, Davenport Landing, Greyhound Rock, Castle Beach and Black Point get their names? Gary explains why the sea behaves as it does, while bringing our coastal history and landscape into perspective. Our climate is changing and the ocean is responding. Many of us are eager to learn more about our oceans and coast, particularly the science behind it all, but we don't often understand that science very well. And to make matters worse, many scientists who write about their particular specialized area, don't do so in way that is understandable or relevant to the non-scientist. Gary’s stories, which draw upon our rich history of ocean exploration and discovery, are written for anyone with an interest in the oceans—not just in Monterey Bay or the central coast—and shed much needed light on what we can expect in the years and decades to come. Gary writes not to advocate, but rather to illuminate. His goal is always to explain the science, which in turn enhances our enjoyment of this beautiful resource, and also empowers us to make considered, informed decisions—whether it is in our daily lives, or in the voting booth. (2014)

Like the first volume of essays, this second volume explores curious ocean questions. (2019)

News and More

University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC)

Gary Griggs’ research is focused on the coastal zone and ranges from coastal evolution and development, through shoreline processes, coastal hazards, coastal engineering, and sea level rise. Recent research projects have focused on documenting and understanding coastal erosion processes including temporal and spatial variations in rates of retreat; evaluating the effectiveness of coastal protection structures and the impacts of coastal engineering projects (seawalls, jetties, breakwaters) on coastal processes and beaches; evaluating beach processes and quantifying littoral cell budgets and human impacts on these budgets; impacts of extreme events such as El Niños) on coastlines; the impacts of sea-level rise on California's beaches and coastline; and coastal policies to reduce the impacts of hazards and sea level rise.


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