A rocky shoreline and house at sunset, under a cloudy sky.
Pleasure Beach in Waterford, Connecticut. © Giovanni Adavelli


New study helps land managers identify “coastal strongholds” to protect people and nature from rising sea levels

Findings help communities plan for and adapt to growing threats to coasts.

A new study conducted by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) helps land managers and agencies identify “coastal strongholds” across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region – areas that because of their unique topographies, elevations and landforms give threatened habitats a chance to escape rising sea levels and continue to provide vital services to people and wildlife.

The study also offers land managers a tool to gather comprehensive data – such as water quality, important wildlife areas, sediment and soil nitrogen levels – that can be used to develop targeted conservation plans that will have the greatest chance of protecting coasts and communities against rising sea levels.

With sea levels projected to rise as much as six feet by the next century, many coastal habitats – such as tidal marshes, sandy beaches and sea grass beds – could disappear forever under rising waters.

But scientists say these “strongholds” provide escape routes that allow threatened habitats to migrate inland and survive sea-level rise. The authors of the study, however, warn that man-made development and pollution could cut off these escape routes and lead to habitats being drowned out of existence.

“As we commemorate the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, and continue to recover from this year’s disastrous hurricane season, we are reminded of the urgent need to protect threatened coastal habitats and communities,” said Mark Anderson, Conservation Scientist with The Nature Conservancy and lead author of the study. “This study gives us hope that both people and nature can adapt to sea level rise, but we need to protect these special landscapes so they can protect us.”

The research is supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery in response to a need identified by a coalition of states, federal agencies and other conservation organizations for information to help land managers and communities make strategic decisions to help coastal systems and communities adapt to changing conditions.

“With this new report, we finally can look across the entirety of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic with an eye to the future to find the best natural places to buffer coastal communities from storms while sustaining our valuable coastal fish and wildlife resources,” said Wendi Weber, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Regional Director. “Resilient Coastal Sites is a powerful tool for local communities concerned about the long-term prospects for their coastal resources.”

Healthy coastal habitats – such as sand dunes and tidal marshes – can shield communities from storm surges while also providing feeding and nursing grounds for wildlife. Sandy beaches serve as breeding grounds for rare species while supporting local tourism economies. Salt marshes rival forests in carbon storage and provide habitat for one of the East Coast’s rarest birds: the saltmarsh sparrow.

The Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, a partnership of federal, regional, state and local agencies and organizations, is already planning to use the tool to identify priority habitat for that species and two others that depend on saltmarsh habitat – black rail and American black duck areas – by looking for parcels in migration corridors that may be eligible for funding through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs to support conservation on working lands.

“If these important habitats disappear, it will have severe impacts on our economy, our environment and the health of our communities,” Anderson said. “Sea-level rise is happening now. We must take conservation action now to ensure these coastal habitats that provide so many services to both people and nature don’t disappear forever.”

The study analyzed landforms, elevations, nitrogen and sediment inputs, man-made development and other characteristics of 11,000 coastal sites from Maine to Virginia. Areas with open spaces, low-lying landscapes, good freshwater flow, low nitrogen and diverse shorelines with many inlets provided habitats the greatest chance to migrate and take root inland. On the other hand, areas with steep cliffs or high elevations will block migration, and too much nitrogen can disrupt root development. Man-made structures such as sea walls or buildings can also cut off escape routes.

Conservancy scientists are now planning to conduct similar studies to identify more strongholds across the Southeastern coasts of the United States.

Anderson said the study will allow land managers to focus conservation activities on areas that will offer the best opportunities for people and nature to overcome the threats of rising sea levels. These include natural environments such as the Great Marsh in Massachusetts; along the York River in Maine; along the North Landing River in Virginia; and along the Delaware Bay in Delaware and New Jersey.

To see the full study visit: http://easterndivision.s3.amazonaws.com/coastal/Resilient_Coastal_Sites_for_Conservation_NE_Mid_Atlantic.pdf

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.