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Marine Places

Big Sur

The Big Sur coastline of central California, where the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains descend steeply into the Pacific Ocean, is one of the most spectacular in the US. Like much of the west coast of North America, Big Sur is an emergent shoreline, in that the coast has risen up faster than sea level since the end of the last ice age. This uplift has resulted from interactions at the nearby boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates—this region is crisscrossed by a complex system of faults in Earth’s crust and is subjected to frequent earthquakes. At Big Sur a combination of tectonic uplift and relentless wave erosion has produced steep cliffs and partially formed marine terraces (platforms cut at the base of cliffs by waves and then lifted up). The coast is susceptible to landslides as a result of wave action, the weakening of the cliffs by faulting and fracturing, the destruction of vegetation by summer fires, and heavy winter rainfall.

Big Surzoom image
  • Pacific Ocean Northeast
  • Type Intermediate coast
  • Formation Tectonic uplift combined with rapid wave erosion
  • Extent 90 miles (145 km)
  • Location Southeast of San Francisco, coast of California, US
Big Sur habitat mapzoom image