New Coastal Dynamics Education Program Launches at Crystal Cove!

Crystal Cove State Park’s beaches are constantly changing.  As long stretches of soft sand in the summer turn into rocky, sea-glass sprinkled shores following winter waves, regular visitors know that these changes can happen very quickly.  Now, Orange County high school students are working with Crystal Cove Conservancy to not only understand the normal seasonal changes that impact our beaches, but also to start coming up with innovative solutions that will help us to protect our beach environment and preserve public access as coastal systems continue to change into the future.

Crystal Cove Conservancy’s new Coastal Dynamics education program puts high school students in the shoes of environmental engineers as they study how the sand is changing near the Historic District’s North Beach.  With coastlines around the world facing intense pressures from increased development and resulting coastal armoring, sea level rise, and more powerful storms, communities are being forced to explore innovative new approaches that balance safeguarding property and prosperity while conserving coastal ecosystems, preserving access, and protecting the beaches that we love.  The Coastal Dynamics program challenges students to consider these challenges through the lens of the Crystal Cove Historic District, offering them a context to explore how best to balance competing stakeholder needs while testing innovative adaptation strategies in a coastal environment.

During the educational program, students are introduced to the idea of changing beach systems in the classroom, as they learn about how erosion from waves, tides, the movement of sand, and sea level rise can all impact the shape of the beach.  They then visit Crystal Cove State Park on a field trip, where they collect data on the shape of the beach and other environmental conditions, and then investigate some of the adaptation strategies currently being used to protect places like the Historic District’s cottages.

Back in the classroom, student project teams are tasked with choosing one specific problem to solve that balances protecting the coastal environment, preserving access, and reducing erosion.  Students must define their criteria for success, research possible solutions, and design and test a small-scale prototype, before sharing their ideas back with State Park managers.

So far this year, ninety-six students from two Orange County high schools have taken part in pilot programming, which was supported by the California Coastal Commission’s Whale Tail grant program and Southern California Edison, with bus transportation funded by the California State Coastal Conservancy.  After visiting Crystal Cove State Park to collect data, student project teams used computer modeling software to create a three-dimensional model of Crystal Cove’s North Beach, calculating how it was gaining and losing sand from January 2018 to January 2019.  Although most of the changes fit expected patterns, there was a surprising spike of sand accumulation in November 2018, which students speculated might have been caused by patterns of waves that month that were wider and possessed less energy than usual.

This innovative new program was designed with support from faculty at UC Irvine’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.  In the future, when the North Beach cottages are fully restored and opened, the Coastal Dynamics program will turn into an overnight experience. Small groups of students from inland areas will spend three days and two nights in Cottage #20 as they are immersed in studying the changing coastal environment.

But with Crystal Cove State Park’s beaches changing so quickly, and with sea level rise and increased storm events due to climate change already impacting California’s coastline, there is no reason to wait.  More high school classes will join Crystal Cove Conservancy later this spring and fall to take part in the growing Coastal Dynamics program as they help us to envision and prepare for the future.


Funding from the California Coastal Commission was made possible through the WHALE TAIL® grants program.  Funding for this grants program is made entirely possible by sales of the WHALE TAIL® License Plate and donations to the Protect Our Coast and Oceans Fund on the California state tax return.

The Coastal Conservancy is a California state agency, established in 1976, to protect and improve natural lands and waterways, to help people get to and enjoy the outdoors, and to sustain local economies along California’s coast. It acts with others to protect and restore, and increase public access to, California’s coast, ocean, coastal watersheds, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Its vision is of a beautiful, restored, and accessible coast for current and future generations of Californians.

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