Manage Coastal Ecosystems 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 constrict 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 — such as sea level rise, saltwater incursion, and flooding from increased storm surge — 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 intrusion into brackish or freshwater habitats and aquifers near the coast.

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 lands may wish to:

  • Assess vulnerability of coastal ecosystems to climate change impacts, such as earlier snow-melt, increased flood risk or dryer summers and changing water levels and water quality. Note: these impacts will vary by region and land managers may want to consider scenario planning to optimize stewardship efforts;
  • Determine whether currently protected habitats are likely to shift their range. If so, consider the feasibility and value of extending the protected area’s boundaries to include this new territory in order to facilitate marsh migration and “conserve the stage” for species and ecosystems.
  • If species migration seems likely, look to remove barriers that may impede migration (dams, for example).
  • Increase the overall health and resilience of existing habitats by removing invasive plants, restoring native species, and protecting habitats from development and other stressors.
  • Wherever possible, protect the health of established ecosystem services, such as shoreline buffers, which may help protect nearby land from increased erosion as well as mitigate potential impacts of sea level rise and storm surge on humans and the built environment.
  • Adopt an adaptive management policy to verify that your stewardship interventions are achieving your goals.
  • Support mitigation measures in order to galvanize immediate actions to reduce the potential extent of future climate change today.

Learn More

Learn about potential climate change impacts, and identify variables that are relevant to your region or land-type.