The Future of the Beach

Photo by Keith MayIf Gregory Benford is right about the future of OC's benighted yet still beautiful beaches, we've got more to worry about than high E. coli counts.

Benford is a professor of physics at UC Irvine and a renowned science-fiction writer. He figures that rising sea levels will pretty much wipe out Orange County's shoreline within the next 50 to 100 years. Like myriad researchers, Benford figures global warming will melt the polar ice caps, which will raise the world's ocean levels dramatically. "The beaches of Laguna, Huntington, etc.—all of them will be eroded by wave action," he says.

In this catastrophic scenario, Benford has science on his side. That's true of his fiction, too, in which science and catastrophism underpin his plots. In Timescape, a scientist discovers a way to communicate with the people of Earth circa 1962, persuading them to ease up on the planet.

Benford writes "hard" science fiction grounded not only in complex theory but also in the minutiae of scientific research; no hypothetical new technology goes unanalyzed. (Timescape's happy readers grapple with some of the most difficult lessons in particle physics.) There's also a strange, dark undercurrent of contempt for government and academia —both of which Benford blames for hamstringing science's warp-speed progress toward wealth and enlightenment. No matter when or where it's set, Benford's world is the world of Atlas Shrugged. In his novel Cosm, pencil pushers and greedy politicos almost destroy a newly discovered universe. The book's hero is, naturally, a scientist.

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Benford's faith in technology provides him with the only flicker of optimism in an otherwise grim view of the beaches' future. He envisions a series of sea walls that would create lagoons where sandy beaches now exist. Or maybe dikes, which would allow the land to be reclaimed—albeit without the trademark beachfront view that makes OC property so popular these days.

"At the extreme," says Benford, "that would hold back the sea, but that's tough because, well, you've got a dike blocking your view. There'll be big disputes over this. . . . The property values will probably suffer." And then he adds, with just a touch of wickedness lacing his voice, "Just imagine the people in Laguna who argue now over their neighbor's trees blocking their view."

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