Waiting for the Warming

Is shallower better? Clark Little/A-Frame

A few years ago, speculation on the effects of global warming and sea level rise caused the staff of Surfing Magazine to pose a question in the form of a cover blurb: "The End of Pipeline?"

The question arose from the fact that Oahu's famed Banzai Pipeline breaks in about six feet of water. With some estimates putting sea level rise at about two feet by the year 2050, a logical line of thinking might conclude that Pipe could go soft, stop barreling, or completely change shape. Another idea might suggest that with more water on the reef, even bigger sets would now break on 1st reef, making for even meaner, top-to-bottom heaters above the 12-foot range. And there may be other scenarios, too, but the one certainty is change.

For the average surfer, considering all of the reefs, beach breaks and sand points that suddenly come alive on low tide, there's sure to be significant mourning over the loss of historic loves. As a community, we're still pining over the demise of Killer Dana -- yet that loss will be dwarfed by the number of every day breaks that morph from down the line fun to rock-lapping closeouts. We've all been in lineups and sensed the change that even a few inches of tide can create.

It's enough to cause one to wonder if we're living through -- and fast approaching the close -- of a kind of golden age in surfing. I admit that I spent some time with this glass-half-empty possibility on my mind. Then a friend, a Santa Barbara native who was living in China, confessed he didn't understand all of the surf anxiety over sea level rise. He couldn't wait for it, in fact. Imagine all of the new spots, the slabs and inner-cove wedges. We could be surfing on top of those jetties we've been surfing next to; parking lots could become the new reefs. The worn-out lineup hierarchies of the last century will be washed away and a new era of discovery will begin.

Sound ridiculous? This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Indonesia, as well as the following earthquakes that significantly changed well-known surf spots. The reef at Indicators on Nias was raised just enough to make it more hollow, maybe even better than it was, but the earthquakes pushed the end bit of Asu above sea level, and it caused Bawa to section off. With sea level rise, these two spots could be returned to their former glory.

Now imagine all of the reefs and boils that haven't yet earned names. This got me thinking about a dry slab below some cliffs near my home. One day, on an unusually high tide, I watched as right-hand barrels began to unload right onto the shelf. There wasn't enough water to allow even fins to pass over it, but the shape was perfect. The real waves are actually to the north and south, but I'd been watching this little novelty for a while when a buddy asked me what I was waiting for. I said I was waiting for sea levels to rise a couple of feet. We laughed, but then he said the idea wasn't that far fetched. His brother had surfed that very shelf. The tide had been even higher, and the brother washed onto the reef a couple of times, but he also scored weirdly hollow tubes.

The hook is set as far as I'm concerned, and I'm willing to wait for this and all of the others spots to reveal themselves. Whether or not I'll be physically able to surf a barreling right-hander over a shallow shelf in forty years depends entirely on other changes -- namely, the future advances in age reversing therapies and the quality of my health care. That, and whether my city will even exist, because with a three-foot rise, scientists say, many coastal towns will become swamps.