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Manage Coastal Habitats for Climate Change

More than half of all Americans live in a county that touches the coast. The population of these counties increased by approximately 33 million people — 28 percent — between 1980 and 2003. Land trusts in these areas have always needed to balance their conservation priorities with significant population and development pressures. Now, these land trusts must also consider the implications of climate change, which threatens to squeeze many coastal ecosystems between rising seas and human development.

Climate Change Impacts: Current and Predicted

Coastal areas are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Many of these impacts — sea level rise, saltwater incursion, etc. — are unique to coastal areas, estuaries and other low-lying areas.   

Observed and predicted climate change impacts to coastal habitats include:

  • Sea level rise. Some areas are already experiencing negative impacts from sea level rise. Current predictions estimate that sea level will rise an additional 7.2 to 23.6 inches — or more — by the end of this century.
  • Loss of coastal wetlands, marshes and mangroves to rising sea level.
  • Stronger and more frequent storms may accelerate erosion, disrupt nesting shorebirds, and expose sea turtle eggs to the elements.
  • Salt water incursion into brackish or freshwater habitats and aquifers near the coast.

Additional information about predicted climate change impacts to coastal habitat, ecosystems and wildlife can be found in the following places:


Recommendations for Adaptation

Sea level rise and increasingly strong storm surges are inevitable. Coastal areas cannot be raised above the approaching water, and shoreline hardening — constructing seawalls or other impermeable barriers — is not recommended. Instead, coastal areas may need to adapt to sea level rise and other climate change impacts by migrating inland, to higher ground.

Land trusts that manage coastal land may wish to:

Specific recommendations for the adaptation of coastal habitats to climate change include:

  • Assess vulnerability of habitat(s) to sea level rise and storm surge.
  • Determine whether coastal wetlands are likely to migrate inland as sea levels rise. If inland migration is anticipated, consider protecting those lands now.
  • Increase the overall health and resilience of existing coastal habitats by removing invasive plants, restoring native species, and protecting habitats from development and other stressors.
  • Wherever possible, encourage the use of living shorelines as an alternative to shoreline hardening.

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