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Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-level Rise:
A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has released a report that discusses the impacts of sea-level rise on the physical characteristics of the coast, on coastal communities, and the habitats that depend on them. The report, Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region examines multiple opportunities for governments and coastal communities to plan for and adapt to rising sea levels.

Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-level Rise is one of 21 climate change synthesis and assessment products commissioned by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), the forerunner to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The report examines the effects of sea level rise, impacts on society, and opportunities to prepare for those consequences, focusing on the eight coastal states from New York to North Carolina.  

Report highlights:


Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region examines potential effects of sea-level rise on the U.S. coast during the 21st century, with a focus on the eight coastal states from New York to North Carolina.  Using the scientific literature and policy documents, the report describes potential changes to barrier islands, wetlands, other coastal habitat, and vulnerable species; societal impacts and implications of sea-level rise; decisions that may be sensitive to sea-level rise; opportunities for adaptation; and institutional barriers to adaptation. It also outlines the current coastal policy context in the mid-Atlantic region and describes the implications for the other regions of the U.S. Finally, the report discusses opportunities for natural and social science research to enhance understanding of potential impacts of sea-level rise and society’s ability to respond.

Sea level is rising, and there is evidence that the rate is accelerating.  Climate change is likely to further accelerate the rate of sea-level rise during the next century. Rising seas can inundate low-lying areas, increase storm-surge flooding, erode shorelines, convert wetlands to open water, and increase the salinity of estuaries and aquifers.  This report does not develop a quantitative assessment of regions vulnerable to inundation by sea-level rise. However, systematic collection of high-quality elevation data would improve the ability to conduct detailed assessments in support of local decision making.  The combined effects of sea-level rise and other climate change factors such as storms may cause rapid and irreversible coastal change. All these changes will affect coastal habitats and species. Increasing population and development in coastal areas also affects the ability of natural ecosystems to adjust to sea-level rise.

Coastal communities and property owners have responded to coastal hazards by erecting shore protection structures, elevating land and buildings, or relocating inland. Accelerated sea-level rise would increase the costs and environmental impacts of these responses. Shoreline armoring can eliminate the land along the shore to which the public has access; beach nourishment projects often increase access to the shore.

Preparing for sea-level rise can be justified in many cases, because the cost of preparing now is small compared to the cost of reacting later. Examples include wetland protection, flood insurance, long-lived infrastructure, and coastal land-use planning. Nevertheless, preparing for sea-level rise has been the exception rather than the rule. Most coastal institutions were based on the implicit assumption that sea level and shorelines are stable. Efforts to plan for sea-level rise can be thwarted by several institutional biases, including government policies that encourage coastal development, flood insurance maps that do not consider sea-level rise, federal policies that prefer shoreline armoring over soft shore protection, and lack of plans delineating which areas would be protected or not as sea level rises.

The prospect of accelerated sea-level rise and increased vulnerability in coastal regions underscores the immediate need for improving our scientific understanding of and ability to predict the effects of sea-level rise. Beginning to incorporate sea-level rise into coastal planning, combined with development of decision support tools for taking further adaptive actions, could lessen the economic and environmental impacts of sea-level rise on the United States.

The USGCRP was established in 2002 to provide the nation with science-based knowledge to manage the risks and opportunities of change in the climate and related environmental systems. The program is responsible for coordinating and integrating the research of 13 federal agencies on climate and global change.

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