How will La Jolla fare in the next El Niño? Infrastructure, sea lions and more may be impacted by storms

Big waves smack the seawall at the Children's Pool during stormy weather in January, causing damage to a safety railing.
(Gary Robbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Forecasters expect a return this year of the phenomenon that brings ‘anomalously wet conditions’ to California, including San Diego.


With the sun finally emerging recently after a cool, wet winter and early spring, the storms that may lie ahead next winter aren’t what most people want to think about. But meteorologists are forecasting that an El Niño year is probably coming, bringing more storms, and La Jolla and other coastal communities may need to brace for impact.

La Jolla’s coast experienced damage during the storms of recent months, and with its older infrastructure, coastal geography and ocean ecosystem, local experts are watching the El Niño signs carefully.

El Niño is a phenomenon centered in the tropical Pacific Ocean in which jet streams get pushed farther south than they normally would be, bringing wetter weather to areas that don’t usually get it, according to Art Miller, an oceanographer at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

“In California and down into San Diego, we would get anomalously wet conditions,” Miller said. “If it was not an El Niño year, that same storm might hit Oregon.”

Forecasters are “more than 80 percent sure they are going to see an El Niño [this year],” he said. “A third are saying it is going to be a major El Niño.”

Ocean impact

“Because the tropics warm [in an El Niño] … that warming extends along the coast,” Miller said. “We will almost certainly, starting in the summer into next spring, have warm ocean conditions. That changes the environment.”

The warmer waters “tend to shut down ecological production in the ocean because the warm temperature tends to suppress the nutrients found in deep waters from going up,” he said.

As a counterpoint, he said, warm-water species that are not often found off La Jolla, such as tuna, may make their way here.

Sea lions

Sea lions hang out in La Jolla.
Sea lions hang out in La Jolla.
(Robyn Davidoff)

The oceanic changes also can affect the sea lion colony at Point La Jolla, specifically in reproduction.

Sharon Melin, a California sea lion research leader for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said sea lions give birth in May and June and nurse their pups for almost a year. During that time, some sea lion females also are pregnant with their next pup.

“So for the whole winter, they are nursing or pregnant or both, and they have a high energetic demand,” Melin said. “When an El Niño comes through … it warms everything up. So if it gets warm, that causes the prey to either move out of the area to find colder water or swim deeper in the water. If it gets too deep or too far, the sea lions can’t get to it. That can compound and ... the pregnancy is impacted.

“Often what we see is sea lion premature birthing or females not giving birth because they can’t maintain their pregnancies. It affects the number of pups born.”

The weight of newborn pups also can be impacted, Melin said. She added that a pup’s weight in the first year correlates to its chance for survival.

Coastal erosion

Another challenge comes with the high surf associated with El Niños. That can create stronger waves and possibly increased coastal erosion, including in areas farther south than normal.

La Jolla has seen “big-league erosion” — the withering of sand and sediment levels along the coast — as a result of the recent winter storms that produced erosion deemed comparable to the 2016 El Niño.

This winter’s stormier-than-usual weather has led to “big-league erosion” on La Jolla’s beaches and elsewhere, leading to undesirable and even dangerous conditions both on land and at sea, local experts say.

Scripps Oceanography is investigating possible remedies to beach erosion, such as the “beach nourishment” being done in some coastal communities. That method involves placing a million cubic feet of sand from lagoons or other locations onto an eroded beach, according to Bob Guza, a professor emeritus at SIO.

The process, however, can have unintended consequences, such as at Imperial Beach, where “major amounts of sand” were added and eventually migrated south, clogging the Tijuana River, he said.

The higher surf also could affect sea lions. “Depending on when pups are born, they could be ... pulled out to sea,” Melin said. “If the mothers are [already] out to sea, there is no one to stop that from happening.”

Children’s Pool and more

In addition to beach erosion, there may be effects on infrastructure along the coast.

Earlier this year, a protective railing on La Jolla’s nearly century-old Children’s Pool seawall was knocked down by strong surf during stormy weather, prompting the city of San Diego to close the pedestrian walkway on the wall until further notice.

The Children’s Pool, funded by La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, opened in 1931 at 850 Coast Blvd. to provide a protected, wave-free shoreline for children.

An $11,258 engineering study led by Matt Mangano and his firm MDEP Inc. is looking at how to reinforce the Children’s Pool seawall and surrounding areas “for the next 100 years” in the face of El Niño and other storms.

“We need to repair the wall now because every day that we don’t repair it, that finish line gets further away from us. We’re fighting against the clock,” Mangano said in January.

“The wall is not going to turn over,” he said, “but I think the failure ... would be a collapse onto itself. It’s not going to have a brutal failure without an event, and we just had an event [the storms that it survived]. But an earthquake might harm it.”

During one winter storm, a light pole overlooking La Jolla Cove was knocked down, creating blocks of unlighted streets at night. The light was quickly replaced.

County tips

To help people prepare their homes for El Niño, Ready San Diego, an initiative launched through San Diego County, has a list of tips.

Among them:

• Acquire sandbags in case of flooding

• Make a family disaster plan

• Review one’s insurance plan to see if it covers flooding

• Sign up for Alert San Diego, the county’s regional emergency notification system that gives alerts with emergency information via phone, text message and email. Learn more at

City steps

To help prepare for the effects of storms and the long-term preservation of the coast, the city of San Diego will hold a scoping meeting for its Coastal Resilience Master Plan at 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 24, on Zoom.

To learn more about the meeting, visit

In 2020, the city completed a vulnerability assessment to identify local risks and potential impacts from climate change. The assessment led to a comprehensive climate adaptation and resilience plan known as Climate Resilient SD.

The resilience master plan for the coast would include Black’s Beach, La Jolla Shores, Marine Street Beach, Windansea Beach and other places across City Council Districts 1 and 2.

“The Coastal Resilience Master Plan will evaluate 10 locations ... at a conceptual level and narrow the scope down to up to six locations most appropriate for nature-based solutions,” including “green” and natural infrastructure, according to the city. “The six locations will be analyzed in greater detail in the Coastal Resilience Master Plan and program environmental impact report for suitability of nature-based solutions, with up to three concepts for further development.” ◆