Great Storm of ‘88

aerial view of coastline
Aerial view of Redondo Beach, California.

NASA image.

Called the “Great Storm of ‘88” by oceanographers, the extratropical (“southeaster”) storm that struck the Pacific Coast from Baja California to San Francisco on 17–18 January 1988 produced the largest waves ever measured in the Southern California Bight (between Channel Islands National Park and the mainland) and exceeded anything recorded or hindcasted for the southern and central coastline (O’Reilly 1989; Seymour 1989). The extreme wave heights caused severe storm-induced beach erosion with losses of beach widths ranging from 75 to 150 feet (23 to 46 m) from Santa Barbara to San Diego, including Cabrillo National Monument (Domurat and Shak 1989). Beaches in Orange County averaged 30 to 150 feet (9 to 46 m) of erosion.

Oddly, the storm developed in a region where extratropical storms usually decay rather than form. In addition to its “far south” track, the storm’s localized intensity and rapid evolution are noteworthy characteristics. This storm was a “bomb”—a term coined by meteorologists for rapid falls in pressure. Bombs have at least a 0.7 millibar (mb) per hour drop in pressure over a 24-hour period at the latitude of central California; the Great Storm of ’88 had a 16 mb drop in 12 hours, from 1002 mb to 986 mb. This anomalous low-pressure system nearly filled the North Pacific basin, and many weather stations in southern California recorded all-time low pressures.

During the January 1988 storm, coastal development suffered serious flooding and structural damage totaling $28 million on the mainland (Armstrong and Flick 1989). Worst hit was Redondo Beach where waves breached and overtopped a breakwater at King Harbor. A hotel, restaurants, piers, and harbor facilities were destroyed or severely damaged, causing losses of $16 million alone (Armstrong and Flick 1989). Unusually large wave heights at Redondo Beach were due to the concentration of wave energy by the submarine Redondo Canyon—a local, deepwater site (O’Reilly 1989).

Fortunate timing of environmental factors spared most of the coastline from more widespread and severe damage. First, a reversal of El Niño conditions resulted in lower, background mean sea-level conditions. That is, sea level could have been 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) higher during an El Niño episode. Second, peak tide and peak storm surge coincided on the morning of 17 January 1988 at only two locations—San Francisco and Port San Luis. Damage was limited because coastal wave amplitudes were modest at this time. Wave heights began to increase sharply after noon on the 17th, reaching 33 feet (10 m) after midnight. According to Flick and Badan-Dangon (1989), “damage along the southern California coast would undoubtedly have been much more extensive had the storm passed over 12 hours earlier, or (especially) 12 hours later. The maximum storm surge amplitude at Los Angeles of around 25 cm [9.8 in] would then have been added to the 120 cm [47 in] tide.”

Recovery was rapid along “natural” beaches (i.e., those without beach nourishment). Beaches experienced an initial recovery period of rapid accretion and a subsequent period of slower accretion (Egense 1989). During the initial recovery period (within about 20 days after the storm), beaches regained roughly 50% of the volume eroded by the storm. Beaches reached essentially full recovery after about 200 days (Egense 1989).

Part of a series of articles titled Coastal Geomorphology—Storms of Record.

Last updated: May 30, 2019