Sea levels are expected to rise 1 to 6 feet over the next century, and this impact of climate change will affect millions of Americans who live and work in coastal counties – nearly half the U.S. population.
But what communities will be impacted the most? Are there healthy habitats that can withstand the impacts of sea level rise? What will happen to the coastal areas that are important to fish, wildlife, and economies?
Knowing that these questions will only become more urgent, TNC scientists evaluated more than 10,000 coastal sites in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to determine their ability to provide a natural buffer to increased inundation from rising seas.
Milford Neck Wildlife Area in Delaware © Harold E. Malde
Our scientists, led by Mark Anderson, found that certain areas can provide threatened habitats “escape routes” from sea level rise—like Milford Neck Wildlife Area in Delaware. Knowing where these coastal strongholds are located can help community and land managers prioritize conservation and restoration, and develop effective strategies for sustaining the natural benefits provided by coastal habitats.
Stewart B. Mckinney National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut © Tiny Banquet Committee/Creative Common
Sand dunes and tidal marshes, for example, can shield communities from storm surges while also providing nursing grounds for wildlife. Salt marshes rival forests in carbon storage and sandy beaches serve as breeding grounds for rare species while supporting local tourism economies.
“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,” says Anderson.
But he adds, “Unfortunately there are many habitats that do not have access to escape routes and are at risk of disappearing forever under rising sea levels. That is why the ultimate goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop climate change impacts from worsening.”