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Coastal Storm History in San Diego County
Darryl Hatheway

Southern California wave climatology differs from the northern part of the state due to its more pronounced east-west shoreline orientation and protection from Point Conception and offshore islands of the California Bight (see Figure 1), which reduce exposure to severe northerly and westerly storms. However, large storm events still impact this area, with particularly strong storm magnification occurring during El Niño winters when storms increase in frequency and intensity, elevating monthly mean winter significant wave heights and water levels. Additionally, El Niño storms tend to approach from the west and south, which has a significant impact on shorelines in San Diego County that are typically protected from northwest swell due to sheltering or refraction effects on the continental shelf, offshore islands, and Point Conception.

1982-1983 El Niño Winter

Large, early winter storms greatly affected San Diego County during the 1982-83 El Niño, initiating erosion hat left the beaches narrow and vulnerable to subsequent storms in January-February 1983 (NRC 1984). El Niño storms had maximum offshore significant wave heights approaching seven meters along the California coast. In southern California, eight storms had offshore significant wave heights that exceeded three meters. Although the northern California coast experienced the strongest storms, widespread erosion and flooding also pervaded throughout southern California (NRC 1984).
Damage to the San Diego pier, beach parks, and beach access stairs generated repair costs in excess of $1.6M (NRC 1984). Extensive pier damage also occurred at the Imperial and Oceanside Piers with repair costs reaching $500,000 and $2M respectively (NRC 1984). Overtopping causing wave damage to shorefront structures occurred along several beaches, including Oceanside Beach and Mission Beach. (Griggs et al. 2005). Additional damage included erosion of the Cardiff State Beach barrier spit and localized cliff retreat in Encinitas (Griggs et al. 2005).

1997-1998 El Niño Winter

The 1997-1998 El Niño event, while believed to be more intense on the ENSO index scale, caused less damage to the shoreline than the 1982-1983 El Niño, in part due to the largest storms aligning with low periods in the tidal signal. Additionally, a much higher percentage of the shoreline had been armored following the 1982-1983 storm events, mitigating the number of exposed structures (Griggs et al. 2005). Despite this lowered risk, extensive damages were reported throughout San Diego County. Wave overtopping was reported at the Torrey Pines State recreational area, Cardiff State Beach spit, and the Mission Beach seawall (Griggs et al., 2005). Likewise, coastal development in the beach at Del Mar and Cardiff also experienced flooding and destruction of homes, restaurants, public parks, and shoreline protective structures (USGS et al. 1999).
In addition to these historical storms, there have been a number of other events causing damages along the San Diego County coastline:
Other Significant Storm Events
  • A large extra-tropical storm occurred in January 1988 causing extreme waves. Damages exceeded $68M along the San Diego shoreline (Armstrong and Flick 1989).
  • High tides combined with large waves in February 1998 destroyed several homes in the county (National Weather Service 2010).
  • During a high spring tide in December 22-23, 1999, a large wave event occurred, depositing cobblestones, sand, and other debris onto Highway 101 and in the parking lots of restaurants near San Elijo Lagoon. Waves were also breaking over the seawalls, jetties, and other structures along Point La Jolla (National Weather Service 2010).
  • Winter storms and high tides in December 2002 caused coastal flooding and major damage exceeding $500,000 to the Ocean Beach Pier (National Weather Service 2010).
  • In January of 2005, large storms resulted in coastal flooding, erosion, and structural damage (National Weather Service 2010).
  • More recent storm activity included coastal flooding during high tides and large waves in January 2014. This storm caused some coastal flood damages in Imperial Beach (see Figure 2).
Each coastal county in the California Coastal Analysis and Mapping Project – Open Pacific Coast study has a unique storm history due to factors such as storm climatology, offshore bathymetry, shoreline orientation, and degree of coastal development. Too often with the passage of time, we forget our vulnerability to coastal flood hazards and our past experiences with coastal storm damage, especially due to infrequently occurring El Niño winter storms. Reminding property owners of historical flooding will help them to refocus on mitigation efforts and promote the development of flood resilient communities.
Armstrong, G. and R.E. Flick. 1989. Storm damage assessment for the January 1988 Storm along the southern California coastline. Shore and Beach, 57, 20-22.
Griggs, G., K. Patsch, and L. Savoy 2005. Living with the Changing California Coast. University of California Press, 540 pp.
National Weather Service Forecasts in San Diego and Orange Counties. A History of Significant Weather Events in Southern California. February 2010.
NRC 1984. California Coastal Erosion and Storm Damage During the Winter of 1982 – 1983.   National Academy Press, 74 pp.
USGS/UC Santa Cruz/NASA/NOAA Collaborative Research Group 1999. A collaborative program to investigate the impacts of the 1997-98 El Niño winter along the California Coast. Shore and Beach, 66, 24-32.
The photo below shows Southern California Bight (source: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration)
Darryl photo 1_CB 9.jpg

The photo below shows Imperial Beach (San Diego County) coastal flooding in January 2014 at Palm Avenue (source:

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