SLO County Weather and Climate Change Affecting Elephant Seals

By Haley Hart 

February 16, 2024

In January, 2023, San Luis Obispo county had record breaking rainfall that led to days off school, closed-off roads, and horrific flood damage in many neighborhoods. Now, almost a year later, the weather has made its transition from sunny and bright to gloomy once again, minus last year’s intensity. The air has been colder, mistier, and light rain storms can be heard, but usually only at night.

However, the weather has not only affected your daily commute to work or the amount of layers you’re starting to wear- our county’s beloved elephant seals are also being affected during their birthing season. 

Photo credit: Christine Heinrichs 

According to Cal Poly biology professor, Heather Liwanag, the local population has grown so remarkably that it’s now considered the largest US mainland breeding population. Liwanag studies our county's elephant seals along with a team of students in coordination with California State Parks and Friends of the Elephant Seal.

Watching the seals on the boardwalk by Highway 1, experts have observed large waves washing over them as the mother seals call out to their pups, who are not yet old enough to have acquired the blubber in order to withstand the freezing waters caused by the weather change. These experts have also predicted that many of the babies won’t make it to adulthood. 

This winter, California’s coast has been hit with extreme heavy rains and high tides that have affected the shoreline. This shift from warm to cold has tragically wreaked havoc on the young seal population. According to Katie Drexhage, a senior environmental scientist with State Parks, who was interviewed by the SLO County Tribune, “With the king tides, we saw some pups be washed out to sea. It's shocking to see, but it is something we can't interfere with. Nature is brutal, and the elephant seals are tested."

Experts and researchers believe that the seals come to the Central Coast not for food, but for space to breed and give birth without risk of getting in one another’s way. But if that space no longer exists due to rising sea levels, extreme weather changes, or man-made developments, the elephant seals face a serious issue.