Can We Outrun the Rising Tide?

May 11, 2017

Endangered house in wait of advancing sea level and coastal storms along the Gulf Coast near Freeport, Texas. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Jennifer Molnar)

Sea level is destined to rise as much as 110 cm during the remainder of this century. Worldwide, it’s rising at a rate of more than one inch each decade (See blog). Sea-level rise is inundating coastal cities such as Miami and is exacerbating the impact of coastal storms such as Hurricane Sandy. We can debate the exact rate of sea level rise, but there is no doubt that it is rising—stemming from melting ice packs on mountain glaciers and on Greenland and warmer sea water temperatures worldwide. A warming climate may have something to do with this.

Rising sea level is destined to cause a loss of coastal wetlands—salt marshes and mangroves that line the coastline. By one estimate, based on the topography of coastal areas worldwide, at least 46 to 59% of coastal wetlands will be lost to sea-level rise this century. These ecosystems are the nursery ground for fisheries and gathering areas for migrating waterfowl. If you grew up duck hunting or like to eat shellfish, the loss of coastal wetlands is not for you. Salt marshes and mangrove forests are also major areas of carbon storage. A loss of these carbon “sinks” means a faster rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Some have argued that the losses of coastal wetlands are overplayed, since wetlands accumulate sediment and new wetlands will develop inland of the coast as sea level rises. This would be true if it were not for the human development that lines so much of the shoreline. When beaches are faced with hardened sea walls and roads and houses parallel the coastline just above the current extent of high tide, there is no obvious way for landward flooding to form new wetlands.

Dolphins spotted in Sampit River in South Carolina. As sea levels rise, saltwater creeps up the river and changes the entire ecology of the system. Photo © Mac Stone

Zoning and land-use planning along coastal zones might preserve critical low-lying lands that could be the locus of future wetlands. Unfortunately, the forces of real estate development have often trumped conservation biologists when coastal lands are in play. Developers show no remorse selling you a lot that will certainly be inundated in a few decades. More rational coastal zone planning could save vacation home owners a lot of money and save fishermen a livelihood.

Once again, we have a choice. We can bury our head in the sand and enjoy the coast today, without worry of tomorrow. Or, we can choose to curb the ongoing changes in global climate and enforce coastal zone planning that will allow us to enjoy the coast and its resources into the future.

This post originally appeared on William H. Schlesinger’s blog Citizen Scientist, published by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

July 2015. Oxnard Mayor Pro Tem Carmen Ramírez and The Nature Conservancy’s Lily Verdone examine efforts in Ventura County to bolster natural solutions to ease effects of sea-level rise. Photo © Kevin Arnold
William H. Schlesinger

William H. Schlesinger is one of the nation’s leading ecologists and earth scientists and a passionate advocate for translating science for lay audiences. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he has served as dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke and president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. More from William H.

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