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Northeastern Coastal Habitats Vulnerability Assessment

While sea level rise represents a looming threat to a range of coastal resources in the Northeast, the specific risks it poses to different species and habitats are difficult to predict. Determining which resources are most vulnerable, and understanding why, is critical for developing effective management strategies to sustain these resources into the future. By synthesizing current research on the vulnerabilities of fish and wildlife habitats in the coastal zone, identifying the major sources of uncertainty, and suggesting future research that can help support the ongoing conservation of coastal ecological resources, this report offers a valuable reference for individuals, organizations, and communities working to plan for and address sea level rise across the region.

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Final Report: The Vulnerabilities of Northeastern Fish and Wildlife Habitats to Sea Level Rise

Additional Resources

This report is associated with a project that completed three assessments of the vulnerability of terrestrial, aquatic, and coastal habitats (ecosystems) to climate change, including sea level rise. One assessment evaluated 13 terrestrial and wetland habitat types, the second [this report] evaluated cold water stream habitats, and the third evaluated coastal habitats.

This report has been cataloged in the USGS Climate Registry for Assessment of Vulnerability(CRAVe) and in the NExUS database, a searchable online gateway to climate information for the Eastern US, Atlantic Canada and the maritime region known as the Northwest Atlantic.

Technical description

Sea level rise poses a major threat to the conservation of important coastal ecological resources in the Northeast and elsewhere. If we are to manage and conserve these resources, on which huge investments have been made over the last few decades, it is vital that we begin to understand vulnerabilities and the factors responsible for them. In this report we review the scientific literature to evaluate our current understanding of the vulnerabilities of fish and wildlife habitats in the northeastern coastal zone to sea level rise (SLR); identify the major sources of uncertainty; and suggest future research that will help us continue to conserve these coastal ecological resources.

Main conclusions from this review include:

  • Data from all 35 tide gauges along the northeastern coastline from Virginia to Maine show that sea levels have been rising for at least the last 90 years.
  • The more recent projections of future global SLR vary among studies, between about 50 cm and 2 m by the year 2100.
  • The ecological impacts of rising sea levels will likely be exacerbated by coastal storms and tidal surges, as happened during Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. These events suggest that the impacts of SLR on coastal ecosystems might not be gradual and linear, but could be sudden and irreversible.
  • Modeling analyses at 28 coastal National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) in the Northeast Region indicate that SLR assumptions of 1 m and 2 m could result in major changes in the wildlife habitats currently present on the reserves over the remainder of this century. In general, analyses project major losses in saltmarsh and beach habitat, and an increase in tidal flats.
  • If saltmarshes and beach decline, than many important wildlife populations dependent on these habitats may decrease (such as marshland birds and other wading birds). Conversely, other populations may benefit from projected increases in tidal flats (such as migratory shorebirds and waterfowl).
  • Understanding the impacts of SLR on beach-dependent species such as piping plover is challenging because of uncertainties such as the degree to which human development will prevent the ability of beaches to migrate inland in response to SLR. The report reviews these and other uncertainties in projecting the impacts of SLR.

Project Contact(s):

(independent consultant)

LCC Staff Contact(s):

, Science Coordinator

Photo Credit: Edward Steenstra/USFWS

Northeastern Coastal Habitats Vulnerability Assessment
Resource Type: Birds, Ecosystems
Conservation Targets: Coastal and Marine
Conservation Framework: Biological Planning
Threats/Stressors: Climate Change, Sea-level rise and storm impacts
Conservation Action: Site/area management, Species management