Quantcast

Storms and Rising Seas Threaten Coastal Ecosystems — Here’s What We Can Do

Climate
Three Arch Bay, Laguna Beach, Southern California. Wikimedia Commons / D. Ramey Logan with Mike Jarvis / CC-BY 4.0

By Jeff Peterson

A century from now, the U.S. coastline will look very different from how it looks today. In the coming decades our beaches, wetlands and estuaries along the shore will be lost or degraded by a one-two punch of more severe storms and rising seas. This combination will drive communities inland and force the relocation of critical infrastructure. The consequences for fish, wildlife and ecosystems could also be devastating.


We're already getting a glimpse of how bad things can get.

The three major storms of 2017 — Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria — caused more than 3,000 deaths and some $275 billion in damages. The longer-term ecosystem impacts of major storms like these are harder to quantify, but no less important. These include shifting of beaches and dunes, saltwater intrusion to freshwater systems, ecosystems contaminated by polluted floodwaters, and damage to habitat, oyster beds and coral. Rising sea levels are steadily pushing storm damage farther inland.

The country has done surprisingly little to meet this daunting challenge. As I wrote in my book A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas, there are steps that need to be taken now to help protect coastal ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Measuring Loss

A first step toward better protecting beaches and coastal wetlands is to understand the risks they face from storms and rising seas.

Scientists predict that as the climate warms, coastal storms will become more intense and melting glaciers and ice sheets could push global sea level up four feet by 2100. Along the U.S. coast, the rise in sea level could be 15 to 25 percent higher due to land subsidence and ocean dynamics.

What will this mean for ecosystems? It's hard to know exactly.

There is currently no national assessment of how ecosystems along the U.S. coast will change. What little we do know points to serious decline in the health of these resources.

For example, a study of the Gulf of Mexico region predicted these losses of coastal wetlands by 2060: 37 percent in Texas, 32 percent in Florida, and 26 percent in Alabama and Mississippi. A 2017 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that up to 31 percent of California beaches would be lost in the event of 3 feet of sea-level rise and 67 percent in the event of 6 feet.

As beaches and wetlands are inundated or migrate inland, some of the ecosystem services they provide will be lost. We are likely to see diminished abundance and diversity of fish and wildlife. Other benefits of coastal ecosystems that are at risk include protection from the impacts of storm surges, protection of water quality, mitigation of coastal erosion, and sequestration of carbon.

The effects of more severe storms and rising oceans on fish and wildlife are not well studied, but the Center for Biological Diversity (publisher of The Revelator) reported that 233 threatened and endangered species in 23 coastal states — roughly 1 out of 6 of the country's protected species — are at risk from sea-level rise.

Manmade Threats

In addition to suffering damages from storms and gradual inundation by rising seas, coastal ecosystems may fall victim to human efforts to protect communities and infrastructure from these risks.

Built structures such as seawalls, damage beach systems and can prevent healthy functioning of marshes and wetlands. Living shorelines, which use natural materials such as plants, sand, or rock to stabilize the shoreline, are an improvement over conventional concrete seawalls but can have some of the same damaging impacts. Beach restoration projects can also harm the ecosystem of the beach as well as the sites from which sand is taken.

Still another manmade threat is the failure to provide space for coastal ecosystems to migrate landward as seas rise. As the inevitability of stepping back from the current coastline is better recognized, land areas that are safe from storms and rising seas will be committed to meet human needs. Ecosystems could lose out on this valuable space.

Strengthening Protections

So what do we do?

The good news is, we already have a lot of the tools and programs we need to make sure that coastal ecosystems are protected as the climate warms. For example, the Coastal Zone Management Program supports state planning for coastal protection. But existing programs need to be strengthened and expanded.

A key first step should be a careful mapping of existing coastal ecosystems and of the potential for successful landward shift of these resources. With such an atlas in hand, governments and nonprofit organizations can identify upland areas that can become coastal ecosystems over time. Special attention needs to be given to mapping fish and wildlife and assessing ecosystem services, so that gains or losses can be tracked and migration corridors protected as these ecosystems shift geographically.

Some coastal mapping initiatives are moving in this direction. For example, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has developed a Regional Coastal Resilience Assessment that identifies "resilience hubs" and other information to guide local conservation planning. Likewise, the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy includes a "blueprint" that identifies places for conservation and restoration.

When it comes to diminishing manmade threats, some states have restricted the use of seawalls and similar hard protection structures. Development on some coastal wetlands is limited by the permit program under section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Nonprofit organizations like the Nature Conservancy are working to protect these resources though acquisition or purchase of easements.

But that won't be enough.

Protecting both existing ecosystems, and the areas these ecosystems will migrate to, will require major new investment in planning and significant new funding to implement plans.

Federal agencies will need to work with state and local governments and nonprofit organizations to successfully manage a long-term landward migration of coastal ecosystems. This will require creating a planning process able to make hard decisions to find space to allow ecosystems to migrate inland.

States and localities also need to consider alternatives to seawalls and other coastal protection structures that pose barriers to inland migration of coastal ecosystems. Can flood waters from coastal storms be accommodated by elevating buildings or critical infrastructure? Is the permanent inundation that comes with rising seas better managed in the long-run by stepping back from the shoreline to safer ground? The federal government needs to provide the science, policy guidance, and funding that state and local governments need to cope with these questions.

Any effort to protect coastal ecosystems from more severe storms and rising seas has a better chance of success if it occurs in the context of a larger effort to protect communities and infrastructure from these risks. For example, existing federal policies related to flood insurance and disaster relief need to be updated to reduce incentives to locate in risky coastal places. This will reduce future demand for structural protection that harms ecosystems. New national policies to require disclosure of flood and sea-level rise risks to a property at time of sale would also help steer investment away from risky areas.

Finally, the federal government should help coastal homeowners avoid devastating financial losses as growing flood risks drive down property values. For example, the government could buy risky property well ahead of rising sea levels and allow current owners to stay — paying rent but not flood insurance premiums — until the property becomes unsafe. Such a program would give these homeowners financial freedom to move to safer ground, reduce the chance of widespread structural protection projects, and expand options for landward migration of ecosystems as well as communities.

To increase the odds that healthy coastal ecosystems will line the U.S. coast 100 years from now, governments and nonprofit organizations need to act fast to ramp up existing protection efforts and be effective advocates for these threatened resources.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Jennifer Molidor, PhD

Climate change, habitat loss and pollution are overwhelming our planet. Thankfully, these enormous threats are being met by a bold new wave of environmental activism.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump mocked water-efficiency standards in new constructions last week. Trump said, "People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once. They end up using more water. So, EPA is looking at that very strongly, at my suggestion." Trump asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a federal review of those standards since, he claimed with no evidence, that they are making bathrooms unusable and wasting water, as NBC News reported.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
(L) Rushing waters of Victoria Falls at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Zimbabwe pictured in January 2018. Edwin Remsberg / VW PICS / UIG / Getty Images (R) Stark contrast of Victory Falls is seen on Nov. 13, 2019 after drought has caused a decline. ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP / Getty Images

The climate crisis is already threatening the Great Barrier Reef. Now, another of the seven natural wonders of the world may be in its crosshairs — Southern Africa's iconic Victoria Falls.

Read More Show Less

Monsanto's former chairman and CEO Hugh Grant speaks about "The Coming Agricultural Revolution" on May 17, 2016. Fortune Brainstorm E / Flickr

By Carey Gillam

Former Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant will have to testify in person at a St. Louis-area trial set for January in litigation brought by a cancer-stricken woman who claims her disease was caused by exposure to the company's Roundup herbicide and that Monsanto covered up the risks instead of warning consumers.

Read More Show Less
A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.