Story at a glance

  • Heavy rainfall and floods have severely damaged California’s Highway 1 in recent years.
  • Part of the highway collapsed over the cliffside last month and is under repair.
  • Despite being accident prone, the highway is a popular tourist attraction.

Even as California is rebuilding a section of the iconic Pacific Coast Highway, experts warn that climate change is upping the chances it will simply collapse into the ocean again. 

Last month, a section of the highway just south of Big Sur in Central California collapsed over the cliffside after heavy rainfall sent water and debris downstream near Rat Creek. Landslides brought on by winter weather have reportedly plagued the stretch of highway above the Pacific Ocean for years, including in 2017, when a collapse left residents isolated for about eight months. Still, the scenic drive is a major tourist attraction in California and the state is spending $5 million in emergency repairs.  


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“There are easier ways to go North or South, but there aren’t any more beautiful ways to do it,” Lesley Ewing, a coastal engineer with the California Coastal Commission, told USA Today. “That’s what makes it iconic."

Still, the coastal route goes through a mountainous area and teeters high above the state’s coastline, where sea levels are rising higher than expected. This isn’t the only geographical threat either and, from the opposite end of the state, wildfires are adding to the toll climate change is taking on the region. 

"There's a lot of evidence that atmospheric rivers will become more intense as the climate warms," UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told USA Today, referring to streams of water vapor that extend from the tropics to the western U.S and are associated with extreme weather events. All this is bad news for a highway that Swain told USA Today "is not in a very geologically stable position even in the best of times."


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Published on Mar 03, 2021