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Highway 1: It’s getting riskier to perch a road on the edge of the continent

A break in the southbound lane of Highway 1 at Rocky Creek Bridge in Big Sur.
A break in the southbound lane of Highway 1 at Rocky Creek Bridge in Big Sur.
(Nic Coury / Associated Press)
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Good morning. It’s Tuesday, April 2. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Highway 1: It’s getting riskier to perch a road on the edge of the continent

It’s one of the most iconic roadways in California if not the nation, in many stretches clinging to the edge of the Central Coast’s stunning sea cliffs, providing unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean, lush forests and even a high-gliding condor, if you’re lucky.

But traveling the length of Highway 1 can be a gamble as it is frequently shut down by landslides and cliff erosion that block the highway and strand people — particularly in the Big Sur region.

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The most recent trouble came Saturday, when a chunk of cliffside and the southbound lane that sat atop it crumbled and fell into the sea. Caltrans closed more than a mile of the highway between Big Sur and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

“It’s the latest setback for the beloved but volatile highway,” Times reporter Corinne Purtill wrote Sunday. “The area is still struggling to recover from landslides triggered by last year’s soaking wet winter, which forced the closure of a 12.1-mile section along the Big Sur coastline.”

The closure initially stranded an estimated 1,600 tourists and residents. On Monday, Caltrans decided the northbound lane was stable enough to get people out. Daily convoys have been scheduled to pass through the affected roadway “under close supervision by engineers,” Caltrans officials said in a news release. The convoys could be canceled based on conditions or more wet weather, the agency said.

Officials also shut down several popular state parks along the Monterey County coast: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Andrew Molera State Park, Limekiln State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Point Sur State Historic Park.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that a layer of asphalt perched on the edge of sea cliffs would be vulnerable to rain and erosion — especially with back-to-back years of abnormally high rainfall.

Caltrans sure isn’t surprised. It has long been assessing Highway 1 and the rest of the transportation system as part of its Climate Resilience Improvement Plan. A picturesque view of Highway 1’s famous Bixby Bridge even adorns the front cover of the public draft of the report, published last September.

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“While infrastructure has traditionally been designed to endure a set of extreme weather events and frequencies, climate change is increasing the severity, frequency, and duration of these events, requiring advanced planning and innovation to adapt to the new norm,” the report states.

In that plan, Caltrans notes it has prioritized four projects to “address sea level rise and cliff retreat on Highway 1.” It’s easy to spot Highway 1 on this mapshowing the roadways Caltrans is prioritizing to study for climate change adaptation. Most of the stretch between Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Simeon is colored in.

Separate from Caltrans’ analyses, a 2022 study published in the journal Geomorphology identified Big Sur as one of the top “hotspots” for coastal cliff erosion in California.

So what’s being done to build resilience against further events like this along Highway 1? I put that question to Caltrans but did not hear back.

Its Climate Resilience Improvement Plan is a bit light on specifics but includes several mentions of enacting “policies and best practices” for engineers working in coastal environments, as well as for stormwater management and drainage designs “that consider long term changes in precipitation, wildfire and subsequent soil erosion, and ocean tides.”

A better question might be: As climate change fuels more intense weather events — like the intense rain and sea level rise that put the state’s precarious infrastructure at even greater risk — what version of Highway 1 can continue to exist?

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I’ll let you know if I hear back.

Today’s top stories

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For your downtime

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An order of soba from Sobar in Culver City.
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And finally ... a great photo

Show us your favorite place in California! We’re running low on submissions. Send us photos that scream California and we may feature them in an edition of Essential California.

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Today’s great photo is from Times photographer Gina Ferazzi at a struggling California vineyard where a tectonic shift in generational drinking habits has led to a global glut of wine.

Have a great day, from the Essential California team
Ryan Fonseca, reporter
Kevinisha Walker, multiplatform editor
Stephanie Chavez, deputy metro editor

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