Upwelling: Ecological Memory on the Coast
Updated: Jun 11
Environmental histories resurface in unexpected, interwoven ways
The Santa Barbara Channel is at the confluence of the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the northern Pacific Ocean and the warm swell of the southern Pacific. These waters mix and push upwards from the sea floor in a process called ‘upwelling’. This upwelling dredges up the coldest water from the deep ocean channels, bringing to the surface the nutrients that had settled deep on the seafloor. Life flourishes in the Santa Barbara Channel, and scientists and conservationists often attribute the high levels of marine biodiversity here to this upwelling.
Like water that is never settled, I find myself constantly brought back to this place. I never intended to study the Santa Barbara Channel. I grew up here, then worked as a national park ranger at Channel Islands National Park. I went away to undergrad in Minnesota, but returned every summer to work at the Park. One summer, I found a research project in the history of Anacapa Island. At the same time, I volunteered with a local city councillor, conducting archival and policy research to support the fight against a proposed coastal power plant in an already-overburdened community, where local activists fought against environmental racism and for climate justice. In an undergrad environmental history class, I learned about the now-extinct California grizzly bears, which had roamed the hills and beaches bordering the Santa Barbara Channel. Stories I listened to while on a boat in the Channel turned into my senior thesis, and then my doctoral research.
The stories that upwell in this place keep bringing me back. The layers of ecological, cultural, and historical memory that make up the Santa Barbara Channel resurface in unexpected, interwoven ways. The sea is never settled; the past is always returning. The sea and its environs dredge things up -- wildfires reveal buried histories, sea creatures driven extinct return. In these hauntings, the spectres of local histories are always ready to reappear.
The Santa Barbara Channel—both the deep-water channel in the Pacific Ocean and the broader coastal region surrounding that oceanic chasm—is home to many such upwellings. Upwellings of histories, memories, and stories. The characters who star in these stories are not always human nor entirely alive. They emulate the ways in which the layers of the Santa Barbara Channel are always in flux— and never quite past.
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San Miguel Island (Tuqan) is the most remote of the four northern Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. These islands and these coastal counties form the borders of the Santa Barbara Channel. San Miguel was used as a U.S. Navy bomb testing site during and after World War II; by the late 20th century, the National Park Service managed the island as a remote oasis for researchers, boaters, and campers. In 2014, the discovery of potentially-unexploded-ordnance shut down the island to visitors and scientists alike for years. The island had to be swept for possibly-still-active explosive devices that had begun to be exposed by eroding sand. Today, this militaristic debris is gone, but the sand and the shoreline continue eroding.
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Left: A postcard depicting the idyllic California coast, with oil derricks in the background. Right: A photo of derricks outside Summerland, CA c. 1901-1903 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
No coastline is ever static. When I was a child, a sidewalk along the beach ended in a broken-off portion of the former highway. It had been left there after the freeway had been moved back, a reminder of the violent coastal surges of a past El Niño storm in the years just before I was born. It’s still there, but the sidewalk has been moved back further, in a planned and managed ‘coastal retreat’. (Coastal ‘retreat’ is a controversial topic, with some believing this signals a surrender to forces we ought to control.) The city eventually resigned to moving the pedestrian/bike path further back, and worked with local environmental groups to allow the dunes and rocks to reclaim the beach. The coast’s agency had never disappeared, but in managed retreat, the coast has been allowed to reshape itself.
The coast is always reshaping itself and it has never been fully controlled by people – no matter who might have thought they were in control at different times. Despite California's passage of the Coastal Act in 1976, which declared all beaches in California as public spaces, wealthy landowners regularly try to enclose ‘their’ beaches. From homeowners in Malibu and Hollister Ranch (the southern and northern bookends of the Santa Barbara Channel) trying to prevent public access to their beaches, to landowners up and down the coast resisting calls for coastal ‘retreat’ in favor of building ever bigger sea walls, the coastlines and its shifting conditions are a constant site of battles for control.
Industrial actors, too, try to enclose the beaches, both physically and figuratively. In the Santa Barbara Channel, the city of Oxnard is home to four coastal power plants – more than its wealthier neighbours of Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Malibu, combined. Recently, an energy company tried to start work on a new power plant on the same site as a retired plant. Community members mounted a massive environmental justice campaign against the plant. Their concerns included air quality effects, continued fossil fuel energy production, and the location of the proposed plant within the reach of rising sea levels. During regulatory hearings, the company claimed that the site had never flooded in its many decades of operation under the previous plant. But when those protesting the plant (myself included, in a small, supporting capacity) searched in the county museum’s archives, a report from just outside the company’s stated timeline refuted that claim; 46 years earlier, two rounds of flooding from El Niño storms devastated that site and others throughout the area. The site had indeed flooded before, and the rising seas all but guaranteed that it would flood again. Community activists succeeded in shutting down the proposed power plant project.
But the seas are still rising. The coast is never settled, never neutral.
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The devastation of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill helped drive the first ever Earth Day. Images of oiled seabirds and streaked sandy beaches, now iconic, foreshadowed the Exxon Valdez and BP Oil Spills. (Oddly, the Santa Barbara Oil Spill is known by its location, not the company responsible for it: Union Oil, now Chevron.) Nearly 50 years later, the Refugio Oil Spill (Plains All American Pipeline) slicked the Santa Barbara Channel coast again.
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II. Monarch the Grizzly Bear
The California grizzly bear is everywhere and nowhere. Images of California grizzly bears proliferate across the state: as the state mammal prowling across the state flag, as the mascot of universities, as a symbol emblazoned on hats, hoodies, and posters. Yet the California grizzly bear is extinct. Its image haunts the state well after the last member of this unique subspecies was killed (most likely in the 1920s).
Before that, however, there was Monarch: the last California grizzly bear captured alive. When I was growing up, I had no idea that there were ever grizzlies near where I lived; you don’t imagine grizzlies tromping through the suburbs. Yet Monarch was caught in the foothills above Ventura and Ojai in 1889. His captors marched him by foot all the way to San Francisco, where he lived on display in captivity. He was the model for the version of the state flag we now see today; he also modelled for various famous images and posters. He survived the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco. As the last remaining known living California grizzly bear, he became a symbol of survival and resilience, yet also one of doom and anticipatory mourning. After his death in 1915, he remained on display, as his taxidermic body is now in a museum.
In 2017, when fires tore across California and the Thomas Fire swept through my hometown, I saw images that repurposed an old illustration of a grizzly bear hugging the state of California. The model for that image may have been Monarch.
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The Santa Barbara Channel is occupied Chumash land. All but one of the Channel Islands have been stripped of their Chumash names. The town where I grew up, Ventura, is named for the Spanish Mission erected in 1782 in an attempt to erase the Chumash people from their own land. In the summer of 2020, following protests and in consultation with local Chumash leaders and the current Mission priest, the city moved the statue of Father Junipero Serra from its position in front of City Hall to an exhibit inside the Mission museum. Serra was the 18th century Spanish priest who founded the Mission system in California. Some protested this decision as erasing history, as if Serra’s image as the founder of this place wasn’t an erasure itself.
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III. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT)
Rachel Carson famously wrote about the devastating ecological consequences of the agricultural pesticide DDT in her 1962 A Silent Spring. Running off of agricultural land and into waterways, DDT built up in ecosystems and decimated bird populations. In southern California, DDT didn’t just run off into the ocean; it was dumped. In the mid-20th century, the largest manufacturer of DDT in the country was in Los Angeles, just south of the Santa Barbara Channel; during this time period, the company dumped toxic waste containing DDT directly into the Pacific. Sometimes they even poked holes into the barrels, to help them sink to the ocean floor faster, already leaking.
DDT started making its way through marine and coastal food webs, accumulating at each higher level of the food chain. Although chemical manufacturers at the time advocated ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’, DDT did not dissipate or disappear into the ocean. It settled, into the ever-shifting substrate of the Santa Barbara Channel. Small fish are eaten by bigger fish, which are eaten by bald eagles, pelicans, and peregrine falcons. These birds end up with so much DDT in their systems that their eggshells are weakened; in the end, the parental act of incubating eggs breaks them. Pelican, falcon, and bald eagle populations plummeted in the 1960s and 1970s. On Anacapa Island, just one brown pelican egg hatched successfully in 1969. Bald eagles went locally extinct. These declines wrought havoc on other species, in a cascade of effects that is still being addressed. Yet there are signs of recovery; today, pelicans, falcons, and eagles are once again nesting on the islands.
And the DDT isn’t gone. After over half a century, its levels are higher than those Rachel Carson wrote of, most likely due to the regional practice of direct dumping.
And the dumped vats, which chemical manufacturers had denied had been dumped in the ocean, were recently re-found, through both archival work and submarine exploration. They’re still there, quietly leaking into the upwelling sea.
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When my mother was a child living in Ventura, she never saw pelicans. They had nearly gone extinct due to DDT. Growing up in Ventura at the turn of the 21st century, I regularly saw huge flocks of pelicans, gracefully and silently skimming the waves. But while I worked at Channel Islands National Park (starting in 2012), pelicans began to decline again. It is not clear why — whether this is a lingering effect of DDT dumping, or the growing influence of the climate changes that are disrupting offshore ecosystems from the bottom up. The pelican’s story is not a linear one of decline and recovery, nor is it a simple tragedy of decline. For me, the pelican’s story is one of haunting, of returning, and of remembering.
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All places are storied.
I feel an ethical obligation to understand this place and the many shifting layers of memory that comprise it. I feel an obligation to not perpetuate erasures, silencings, and other forms of forgetting; remembering is about responsibility. Yet I am wary of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ or of indulgent anticipatory mourning. What we remember—and how we remember it—matters.
In my home and my place of study of the Santa Barbara Channel, these memories are always upwelling. The shifting substrate of memory means that things come back, haunt us – if we make these hauntings visible, legible. I’ve sampled just a few stories of this place, but there are more to tell, more memories returning.
Ecologies and environments intrude on and act upon our lives, even if we think of particular places as not being ‘environmental’ or ‘natural’ spaces. The environment has never not been a dynamic character shaping our stories. For some, however, it has been imagined to be conquered or controlled, and therefore canceled out. As we move forward in a world continually shaped by overlapping crises that can’t be neatly separated into ‘social’ or ‘natural’, particularly the climate crisis, this reality becomes harder to ignore. Every place is made up of its own layers of unsettled and unsettling memories. In becoming attuned to a place, you become responsible for it, and for all these eco-social memories weaving through its pasts, presents, and possible futures.
Anna Guasco [2019, Downing] is studying for a PhD in geography, focused on the histories and stories of gray whale migration and conservation on the North American Pacific coast.