.Gary Griggs Digs Up Perils of Monterey Bay Quakes, Floods

Local geologist Gary Griggs has lived in Santa Cruz through some of the biggest natural disasters of the last 100 years, but his view of them sometimes defies convention. Despite his extensive experience studying quakes and tsunamis, flooding and landslides, he doesn’t advocate for earthquake insurance (since he says the deductibles are high) or even a huge amount of earthquake preparedness.

“Generally, earthquakes don’t kill people, falling things do,” Griggs says. “Your odds of dying are really, really low. I mean, there are simple things to secure and proof your house for an earthquake, but I don’t have a bunch of stuff ready to go.”

If the status quo is often wrong, it’s probably because of the general lack of knowledge beyond our superficial understanding of natural disasters. In his 50 years of studying and lecturing on local geology, Griggs has seen many people, particularly realtors, who don’t know the history of this region’s disasters. Newcomers buy homes in flood zones or right along fault lines without knowing it, and are shocked when there’s a huge crack in their kitchen floor or their backyard is underwater.

Griggs can’t land-survey everyone’s house before they buy, so instead he wrote a book that details patterns of disasters around the Monterey Bay. Between Paradise and Peril recounts this area’s lengthy history of natural disasters from earthquakes to major flooding. Griggs says he’s wanted to put together a book like this for some time now, but finally got inspired after his “Perils in Paradise” lecture at the Rio Theatre last year.

Griggs thought the event would draw only friends and family to the front row, where they would be sitting surrounded by a bunch of empty seats. “Well, they sold it out—like 600 people showed up,” he says. “That was really gratifying. I got some really great responses from people. That got me going, and I thought I could finally do this in a book. It was time.”

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That was in January of 2017, around the same time Griggs was writing two other books, Coasts in Crisis: A Global Challenge and The Edge: The Pressured Past and Precarious Future of California’s Coast. This is all along with his regular column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

“It’s not about making money or selling tons of copies,” Griggs says. “It’s more to give people a perspective that we live in this wonderful place that looks like paradise, but really if you look at the environmental hazards around here, there are tons of places that aren’t safe to live at all.”

Climate Conundrums

The book’s eight chapters include nearly 200 years of earthquakes, flooding, droughts and tsunamis, topped off with a final chapter on climate change. If readers take away one or two things from the book, he hopes it’s the chapters on climate change and flooding. “We have an impact on climate change. We can consciously affect the outcome and do something about it,” Griggs says. “We have some control over flooding, too. It has affected more areas in the county more frequently than any other hazard.”

As a geologist, Griggs says it’s important to know the history of natural disasters in order to predict their future impacts and occurrence. Just two weeks before the Loma Prieta earthquake, Griggs predicted that Watsonville and downtown Santa Cruz would be subject to liquefaction if a big enough earthquake hit. He wasn’t wrong.

“Lots of people ask me when the big one is coming,” Griggs says. “The point of this book is there isn’t going to be one—there’s going to be lots of big ones because of where we live. The 1989 earthquake was probably the biggest we are going to see in most of our lifetimes, but there will be more.”

Griggs lives on the lower Westside of Santa Cruz, just inland enough to not have to worry about immediate sea level rise or flooding. It must be reassuring to be his neighbor. But most people can’t afford to live next to Gary Griggs, realistically, and one problem is that those who can’t afford to live in town often end up looking to buy in Love Creek or Felton Grove, which experience much more frequent flooding.

“Homebuyers rely on the realtors, but the realtors don’t know. They aren’t scientists,” he says. “I give this talk to the realtors every year about coastal geology and natural disasters. They have really responded, because I show a lot of pictures and they think, ‘Huh, maybe I should reevaluate that house I just sold on the cliff.’ They get pretty shook up.

The Monterey Bay Region is known for its picturesque views, prime surf spots and redwood forests. When surrounded by such beauty, Griggs points out that it’s easy to forget the extensive history of disasters. The point of Between Paradise and Peril is to educate the community, particularly those that just moved to the Monterey Bay area, about the extensive history of natural disasters in this area and what to expect in the future.

Griggs points out that although we live in a natural disaster hotspot, the number of deaths from natural disasters is extraordinarily low compared to the fear and hype around them. In fact, he says, people are more likely to die from a dog bite or bee sting than an earthquake or tsunami.

“People in my classes are afraid of sharks, mountain lions and tsunamis,” Griggs says. “There’s never been a shark death in Monterey Bay, I don’t think there’s been a mountain lion death, and one person died from a tsunami. Opiod deaths and drive-by shootings are much higher and more common here.”

Griggs says he’s always been an optimistic, motivated person. “People say their glass is half full or half empty. Mine is overflowing,” he says. But he’s the first to admit that when it comes to climate change, things are not fine. There have been many setbacks in the last couple of years, including reinvestment in the coal industry, but he says there are still things that can be done to combat climate change in particular, and that hope is essential.

“I always tell people the most important thing they can do is vote, and I hope that in the long run there are enough people that are smart enough to make good decisions. The trouble right now isn’t Trump, it’s the number of people who believe in him and back him,” Griggs says. “We talk about tipping points and points of no return, and I think that’s a little bit misleading because I don’t think we necessarily have a tipping point where everything goes off the edge. It’s more of an incremental increase. It’s good in that it takes a while, but it’s bad because people aren’t as likely to respond to it.”

On a local level, he notes that Santa Cruz is unique because the majority of people are not climate deniers—they fall on the same side of the political spectrum, but disagree over specifics.

“What’s interesting is in Santa Cruz we have environmentalists fighting environmentalists over issues,” Griggs says, noting that two of the biggest arguments lately have been over the rail trail and rent control, which appeared on Nov. 6 ballots. “It has everyone riled up, and it’s probably not going to end anyone’s life. There’s some perspective in that.”  

Gary Griggs will be discussing his new book at two upcoming events:

7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8. Bookshop Santa Cruz. 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. 423-0900. bookshopsantacruz.com. Free.

6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29. Seymour Marine Discovery Center. 100 McAllister Way, Santa Cruz. 459-3800. seymourcenter.ucsc.edu. Free, seating limited.


  1. Gary Griggs taught the first Earth Sciences class I took at Santa Cruz in 1976. I went on to get a degree in Earth Sciences from UCSC. He is one of the great applied scientists of our time. Great perspective and insight.

    • Gary Griggs taught the second earth sciences class I took (echoing the commenter abover): I went on to receive a BA in Earth Sciences from UC Santa Cruz (including 2 summers of Alaskan field work), serve at the US Geological Survey Marine Feology program, receive an MS Geology, Idaho State University, and run the Salt Lake County Geologic Hazards Program as the County Geologist. I was responsible for Professional Geologist licensure in Utah, and for re-writing new geologic hazards management ordinances. All this, because Gary showed me right from the get-go that geology impacts people, and to care about the outcome for them. He’s has an awesome career doing what he loves. He’s a talented writer, making a sometimes difficult science relevant and approachable. I’ve enjoyed seeing his career and will look forward to reading his new books.


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