Jenifer Dugan was on a mission.
A research biologist at UC Santa Barbara's Marine Science Institute, she knew that more than 40 years ago local biologist Dale Straughan had surveyed marine plant and animal life on more than 60 state beaches from Morro Bay to San Diego.
Straughan was a researcher at the University of California's Allan Hancock Foundation. She conducted the original surveys for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management after the devastating 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, when more than 3 million gallons of oil leaked from a ruptured well a few miles offshore.
Dugan studies the effect of climate change on coastal biodiversity - looking at everything from seabirds to tiny animals that burrow beneath the sand. She knew Straughan's data would help her understand what factors have lead to a decline in coastal biodiversity on Southern California's beaches over time.
"Beaches harbor this absolutely unique biodiversity that is not replicated anywhere else," Dugan told KPCC.
Dugan hit a lot of dead ends trying to locate Straughan's research.
"We made inquires all over the place looking for the data - because people were convinced it was in a digital form or on tapes," she said.
It turned out that Straughan's research had never been digitized, so it wasn’t showing up in any databases.
Straughan now lives in Texas, but she still keeps a house in Southern California.
And Dugan says a trip there yielded a gold mine.
“In her garage, she had all of her original data. So, we felt like we had won the lottery," she told KPCC.
UC Santa Barbara Ph.D student Nicholas Schooler spent nearly two years sorting through 19 boxes of surveys and data taken from Straughan's garage. Eight of the boxes contained files with the original data sheets.
"That's where we focused our efforts," he said.
Schooler said the data were organized based on the type of beach organism surveyed. All of the information also had to be digitized and cross-checked with other research. "We had to put these pieces together in order to dig deeper and see what kind of information is usable and what we could work with," Schooler said.
With Straughan’s data for comparison, Dugan and Schooler launched their own survey of local beaches.
Their research looked at 13 Southern Californian beaches that had been surveyed by Straughan.
Dugan and Schooler hypothesized that they would find regional factors relating to climate change - like erosion and sea level rise - that were damaging beach biodiversity.
But their findings surprised them. They found that over time local activities meant to clean up beaches like beach grooming were harming coastal biodiversity more than climate change.
Beach grooming machines pick up trash - but they also rake up kelp, a major source of food and shelter for beach animals. These critters also break down vital nutrients in kelp that are later washed back into the ocean or spread to near-shore grass.
Both scientists hope to work with local agencies to revive coastal habitats. Schooler says that on beaches where authorities have changed management practices - prohibiting off-road vehicles or reducing beach grooming for example - they saw some of the "biggest rebounds" in the number of beach species.
But the effects of climate change are still a threat to beach animals, Schooler said. Other beaches surveyed showed habitat loss through both sea level rise as well as sediment loss from damming rivers.
Beach species can get trapped between sea level rise and "bluff-backed" beaches or those with seawalls like at Coal Oil Point Reserve, which is located near the UC Santa Barbara campus.
Beaches backed by dunes are more resistant to sea level rise, but the rising shorelines also contribute to habitat loss and sediment change that is killing off important beach animals.
"We have this combination that is really intensively going to affect beaches as they change over the coming decades," Dugan said. She said further research will focus on identifying "where beaches will persist and where this biodiversity will be able to survive as the climate changes."
But Dugan says it’s not all bad news. Beach habitats are rebounding where there is less intrusive activity like beach grooming. And many beaches surveyed had some of the highest biodiversity levels recorded recently.
“These species can recover. Even some of the most vulnerable species - the ones that can barely crawl out of a footprint - can recover," Dugan said.