Coastal Lands

Coastal lands describe the interface or transition areas between land and sea. Some land managers consider entire watersheds when engaging in coastal planning, while others limit their working definition to ecosystems in close physical proximity to the ocean. Learn more about Defining Coastal Lands for Conservation in a Changing Climate

Characteristics of Coastal Lands

The coastline of the United States is highly populated.  A spatial assessment of Census data on population by county reveals higher concentrations in the coastal areas, and lower population in the central regions.


Of the 25 most densely populated U.S. counties, 23 are along a coast. Coastal areas are home to species and habitats that provide many benefits to society and natural ecosystems. Additionally, coastal and ocean activities, such as marine transportation of goods, offshore energy drilling, resource extraction, fish cultivation, recreation, and tourism are integral to the nation’s economy.

Challenges Presented by Climate Change to Coastal Lands

Climate change is impacting and will continue to affect coastal areas in a variety of ways. Coasts are sensitive to sea level rise, changes in the frequency and intensity of storms, increases in precipitation, and warmer ocean temperatures. In addition, rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are causing the oceans to absorb more of the gas and become more acidic. This rising acidity could have significant impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems. A report from NOAA and USGS, Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities: a technical input to the 2013 National Climate Assessmentfound that all U.S. coasts are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as sea-level rise, erosion, storms and flooding. More populated low-lying parts of the U.S. coast along the Gulf of Mexico, Mid-Atlantic, northern Alaska, Hawaii, and island territories are especially vulnerable. Another finding indicated the financial risks associated with both private and public hazard insurance are expected to increase dramatically.

The impacts of climate change are likely to worsen many problems that coastal areas already face. Shoreline erosion, coastal storms, and flooding affect infrastructure and coastal ecosystems. Water pollution from runoff impacts coastal ecosystems making them less resilient to climate impacts. Confronting existing challenges is already a concern. Addressing the additional stress of climate change may require new approaches to managing land, water, waste, and ecosystems. As conservation experts and long-term resource stewards, the land trust community is uniquely poised to inform land and water management dialogs.

Best Management Practices: What Land Trusts Are Doing

The work land trusts have been doing for years provides climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience benefits in many ways – historic conservation efforts have avoided deforestation and land conversion and have preserved open spaces and the many ecological values they provide. As climate impacts become more pronounced and urgency to respond to these stressors grows, the land trust community is responding to coastal land management challenges associated with climate change in various ways. For example, Scenic Hudson in New York has worked with partners to map and project sea level rise impacts in the Hudson River Valley, enabling them to help communities visualize and plan for changing inundation patterns. Similarly, in Florida, the North Florida Land Trust has mapped areas that will likely be inundated by sea level rise and is using this map to inform strategic conservation objectives. In Hawaii, the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust has implemented coastal conservation projects to promote habitat restoration, mitigate sea level rise, and enhance community sustainability by supporting localized food production. Read more coastal case studies.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to address climate impacts, conservation organizations are increasingly working with their communities to identify opportunities to reduce vulnerabilities and build resilience to prepare for a changing climate. Agencies are making similar strides to implement projects that reduce risks and plan for resilience by incorporating adaptation, mitigation, and engagement into their strategic goals and objectives. They are also developing resources and providing funding opportunities for land trusts and others to support climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

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