On May 23, a massive landslide occurred along the California coast near Big Sur, burying a portion of California State Route 1, known more popularly as ‘California Pacific Highway’. Route 1 is a critical access road for many communities along the coast, as well as a popular tourist destination. The recent landslide has made an already isolated area virtually inaccessible and turned short commutes into hours-long road trips. Since the landslide happened just prior to Memorial Day weekend, businesses in Big Sur have already felt the economic impacts. Early observations from engineers and geologists indicate that it may take up to a year to reopen the highway, with some even suggesting that the map of California’s coast must now be redrawn. Consequently, the businesses in the area must brace for an indefinite period of economic hardship.

The Pacific Coast Highway at Big Sur – Wikimedia/Robert J. Boser

This disaster was not unpredictable. In fact, that very section of the highway had already been closed off for repairs after several smaller landslides happened along the route since January. Though these mitigation efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, closing that part of the highway prevented any casualties that might have resulted from the landslide; the long term impacts on the community are less certain.

The United States Geological Survey has estimated that the recent landslide added thirteen acres to California’s coast, with 65 feet of earth blanketing Route 1. Crews may be forced to literally move mountains in order to reopen the highway in Big Sur. With climate scientists warning that extreme weather events are occurring more and more frequently, the need for communities to better predict similar landslides is becoming increasingly urgent.

Landslides are a fairly common weather event, and they can occur in most parts of the United States. Many other landslide-prone countries use landslide hazard mapping technology that help to predict where and when the next landslide will occur, and how severe it will be. To produce these maps for the entire United States would be a costly endeavor, and has not yet seen sufficient investment. In at least one case, a mapping program was cancelled due to concerns about the effects on real-estate development. Making such tools available to Americans would enable at-risk communities to invest in preparative measures that ensure economic continuity in the aftermath of a major landslide.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Massive landslide brings new level of isolation to Big Sur – San Francisco Chronicle
  2. S. Transportation Secretary Mineta Names 36 New National Scenic Byways, All-American Roads – Federal Highway Administration
  3. Pacific Coast Highway – Travel Channel
  4. Before and after the latest disaster that cut Big Sur off from the rest of the world – The Washington Post
  5. Big Sur landslide another blow for area businesses – KEYT News
  6. More than 1 million tons of rock and dirt have to be moved off Highway 1. But how? – LA Times
  7. Landslide Closes Section of Popular Coastal Highway in California – The New York Times
  8. How to Make Landslides Less Deadly – The New York Times
  9. Big Sur landslide adds 13 acres to California coastline – CNN
  10. Extreme weather already on increase due to climate change, study finds – The Guardian