Surging Seas Spell Trouble for Coastal Wildlife and Nature-Loving Humans

Rising sea levels along the eastern United States seaboard will have devastating impact on a wide variety of species, including humans, according to a new report issued this month by the National Wildlife Federation.

Surging seas will inundate natural habitat and ecosystems that support wildlife. Rising tides will swamp vast wealth in real estate and community infrastructure that support coast-loving humans.

Coastal flooding at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Photo:  Putney Pics / Flickr, under CC BY 2.0
Coastal flooding at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Photo: Putney Pics / Flickr, under CC BY 2.0

Economically at risk is hundreds of billions of property $1.4 trillion worth of property located within one-eighth of a mile from the U.S. coastlines. Rising oceans threaten to undermine a vast coastal recreational economy worth between $20 billion and $60 billion annually for beachgoing, angling, birdwatching, and snorkeling/diving.

“When wildlife habitat and natural systems are degraded, so are economic opportunities,” said Lauren Anderson, a member of NWF’s climate and energy research team. “The East Coast of the United States is on the front lines of a changing climate.”

The wildlife group’s analysis rests on the 2014 U.S National Climate Assessment mid-range estimate that global average sea levels will rise between one and four feet this century. But the group says that an emerging scientific conclusion points to a more likely scenario of at least six feet, or more than two meters by 2100.

The federation’s analysis summarizes nine impacts of sea-level rise on natural systems and human communities on the eastern seaboard.

  1. Increased coastal flooding: Many cities along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States face increasing risk of coastal flooding. Miami stands to lose more financial assets than any coast city in the world by 2070 – $3.5 trillion.
  2. Saltwater intrusion into the fresh water that supplies communities and wildlife: Fresh water tables used for agriculture and drinking water increasingly will be contaminated by seeping saltwater, which will corrode water treatment facilities. Change in salinity will harm tidal freshwater marshes important for critters.
  3. Beach erosion: Nearly half of Florida’s beaches are critically eroding and the state has spent $400 million over the past decade on sand replacement to replenish property values, tourist attractions and natural barriers that protect coastal property. Shorebirds and turtles will lose healthy beaches critical for nesting and migration.
  4. Loss of wetland buffer zones: Coastal wetlands provide vital habitat for birds and fish, and also offer coastal communities flood storage by absorbing energy, storing flood water, and buffering storm surges.
  5. Greater damage from more frequent and severe extreme weather events: Costs associated with more frequently weird weather have increased significantly over the past decades. Average losses caused by recent hurricane winds, land subsidence, and sea-level rise are estimated to be $14 billion per year.
  6. Loss of property values: Local governments rely on property tax revenue that comes from seaside homes and businesses. As sea levels continue to rise, both property values and business opportunities in many areas are likely to decline.
  7. Loss of hunting and fishing opportunities: As the seas warm from rising global temperatures, some marine species are moving north toward cooler ocean waters. This shift in distribution leads to disruption in coastal ecosystems as prey and predator species become separated. This effect will be compounded by sea-level rise as it alters coastal ecosystems.
  8. Loss of outdoor recreation income related to wildlife and natural places: Many businesses rely on healthy coastline amenities to attract nature-loving customers.
  9. Cultural impacts: Sea-level rise could disrupt local communities whose way of life depends on coastal ecosystems for subsistence fishing and farming. For example, the Seminole Tribe of South Florida depends on a healthy Everglades ecosystem to preserve their cultural heritage.
9 impacts of sea level rise. Image: National Wildlife Federation
9 impacts of sea level rise. Image: National Wildlife Federation

See the full report here.