Open Spaces : sea level rise

Alaska: Across the Wildest State, Climate Change Threatens Many Species and Habitats

A momma polar bear stands with baby bears flanking her on either side

An Alaska polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Melting sea ice has made the polar bear a symbol of climate change impact. Photo: Susanne Miller, USFWS. Download.

Mutlimedia iconAudio: Interview with Alaska Native Elder Christina Westlake

Video: Polar Bear Research on the Chukchi Sea

With an area of more than 375 million acres extending 2,000 miles from east to west and 1,100 miles from north to south, Alaska dwarfs other states. The northernmost state is also unmatched in its range of climates and habitats — and nearly all are feeling impacts from climate change. 

During the last half-century, Alaska has seen some of the most rapid warming on earth, with temperatures rising 1 to almost 4 degrees Fahrenheit across its climate regions and ecosystems. By the year 2100, the average annual temperature of Alaska’s North Slope is projected to rise another 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

 “One big difference between Alaska and the Lower 48 is that here we’re dealing with impacts that have already occurred, not just forecasts of change,” says John Morton, Supervisory Fish and Wildlife Biologist at Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. “And because Alaska hasn’t undergone widespread landscape change from non-climate stressors such as agriculture and development, the impacts of climate change aren’t masked as they are elsewhere.”

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New Jersey: Biologists Utilizing New Tools to Mitigate the Impact of Climate Change

Biologists standing on grass with a cityscape behind them

Refuge biologists head to the field at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge to study ways to manage marsh habitats in the face of climate change. The refuge hosted a workshop in 2010 so biologists from Northeastern national wildlife refuges could learn how to manage salt marshes to adapt to climate change. Photo: Bill Butcher, USFWS. 

Photo iconPhotos: View photos of E.B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on Flickr

Video iconVideo: Watch a video about the climate change assessment tool

Edwin. B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, New Jersey, is among the first wildlife refuges in the country to complete the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Shorebird Habitat, which not only measures how vulnerable a habitat is to the effects of climate change, but also enables managers to consider how to sustain such habitats.  The assessment looks at a range of stressors, including sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of storms, and changes in precipitation and temperature.  

The assessment shows that climate change threats at Forsythe Refuge will be magnified over time, with much higher risk in 2100 as compared to 2025.  Potential risks include sea level rise inundating habitats, storms destroying beaches and dunes, erosion of tidal creek banks, ocean acidification affecting invertebrates that birds feed on, and heavy rainfall causing greater runoff of pollutants into tidal flats.

Refuge staff is using the assessment results to develop a habitat management plan.

Forsythe Refuge mainly consists of tidal salt meadow and marsh. Tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds, wading birds, ducks and geese use the refuge in the spring and fall to rest and eat the rich food resources. Other birds remain through the summer to nest and raise their young. 

Nesting habitats for American oystercatcher and piping plover, as well as stopover habitat for red knot during its lengthy fall migration are particularly vulnerable. 

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Alabama: Small Changes Can Spell Big Trouble for Vulnerable Species

A diamondback terrapin sits in grass

Diamondback terrapins were once abundant on Dauphin Island, Alabama.  Now, they need state protection in order to survive. Photo: Ryan Hagerty, USFWS. Download.

In Alabama, folks embrace their natural resources.  From the sea turtles and manatees of the Gulf Coast, to the darters and mussels of northern Alabama streams, the state has some of the most diverse wildlife in the nation. This incredible variety of species includes many that are rare, and some that are imperiled.

More than 113 of Alabama’s species are now listed as threatened or endangered, including some 61 freshwater mussels, 10 reptiles, and 21 plants. With so many imperiled species in their care, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists take climate change seriously.  That’s because slight changes in climate can affect the survival of a species.

“Small environmental changes can have big effects in a relatively short period of time, particularly when you are considering such powerful ecosystem drivers as temperature and moisture,” explained Dan Everson, Deputy Field Supervisor for the Service’s Alabama Field Office.  “Many of the plant communities we have come to know and love on the Gulf coast are responsive to relatively subtle changes in moisture.  Because of the flatness of the coastal plain, a few extra inches of ground water, a few extra floods, a slight change in elevation of the tides, or even a few extra inches of rain per year may determine whether our children will continue to admire a slash pine woodland with an understory of pitcher plants and toothache grass, or find themselves instead tripping over cypress knees and palmetto crowns in a tupelo swamp.”

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Washington: Tide Returns to Nisqually Estuary

Many bird species resting at a wetland

This project is a model of how estuary restoration can happen while providing a mosaic of diverse habitats for fish and migratory birds, quality public access, and education. Photo: Jesse Barham, USFWS. Download.

Photo iconPhotos: Nisqually Restoration and Boardwalk Projects on Flickr

Video iconVideo: Rivers and Tides: Restoring the Nisqually Estuary

River delta restoration projects are considered crucial to provide increased resiliency to large estuary systems – a key tool for adaptation in the face of climate change and related impacts of sea level rise. The Nisqually estuary in Washington State is a shining example.

After a century of diking off tidal flow, the Brown Farm Dike was removed in October 2009, allowing tidal waters to once again inundate 762 acres of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia, Washington. Along with 140 acres of tidal wetlands restored by the Nisqually Indian Tribe, the Nisqually Delta represents the largest tidal marsh restoration project in the Pacific Northwest to assist in recovery of Puget Sound salmon and wildlife populations.

During the past decade, the refuge and close partners, including the Tribe and Ducks Unlimited, have restored more than 22 miles of the historic tidal slough systems and re-connected historic floodplains to the Puget Sound in Washington State, providing the potential to increase salt marsh habitat in the southern reach of Puget Sound by more than 50 percent. The projects have also initiated the restoration of more than 70 acres of riparian surge plain forest, an extremely depleted type of tidal forest important for juvenile salmon and songbirds.

“The project is an important step in the recovery of Puget Sound,” says Refuge Manager Jean Takekawa. “Combined with the 140 acres previously restored by the Nisqually Indian Tribe, more than 900 acres of the Nisqually estuary have been restored.”

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Virginia: Researchers use high-tech tools to predict and plan for sea level rise at Chincoteague

Beach and a fence

The Service is using sophisticated technology and models to make sea-level rise predictions at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The information can help managers understand potential changes to salt marshes and other key habitat. Photo: Greg Knadle/USFWS.

The 14,000 acres of pristine beaches, dunes, maritime forest and salt and freshwater marshes that comprise Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge at the southern end of Assateague Island in Virginia are a haven for wildlife, plants and people, who come to fish, crab and watch spectacular wildlife. But like most coastal areas, rising sea level due to a changing climate poses a major threat.

“Comparing older maps of the refuge and the town of Chincoteague with newer maps tells a distinct story,” said Lou Hinds, Chincoteague refuge manager. “The land mass is shrinking and sea level rise is the main culprit.”  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several partners took to the skies to get a more precise understanding of the topography of the refuge’s salt marshes to help predict the impact of salt water intrusion on plants and animals and how the landscape will evolve over time.

In partnership with NASA, the Service used LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) equipped aircraft to map some of the most environmentally sensitive areas on and surrounding the refuge. The Nature Conservancy conducted its own independent LIDAR flights over the area as well. LIDAR uses pulses of light to map at high resolution the physical features of a landscape.  

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Maryland: Restoring Native Forests Helps Animals Adapt at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Marshland

There are many reasons why the marshes have been disappearing. Nature has had a hand, including erosion from wind and waves, more frequent powerful storm surges, land subsidence and – now we know-- sea level rise. Photo: USFWS.

It takes less than three hours to drive from the nation’s capital to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  But the bald eagles, abundant waterfowl and fish that are a world away from Capitol Hill are losing ground to the widening Blackwater River and rising sea level in the Chesapeake Bay.

People have been partly responsible for the marshes’ disappearance: by introducing nutria, voracious grass-eating rodents; and by building roads, bridges, canals and ditches that have affected water flow over time.

Nature has had a hand, including erosion from wind and waves, more frequent powerful storm surges, land subsidence and – now we know – sea level rise.

Blackwater Refuge Manager Suzanne Baird has an arsenal of tools that she and her staff, along with conservation partners, may use to protect refuge lands as a coastal haven for fish and wildlife along the Chesapeake Bay. Some measures to counteract marsh loss include creating new marsh, controlling invasive species, and pumping in soil to bolster marsh areas.

The simple act of planting trees creates wooded areas or corridors for animals to roam as the marshes continue to shrink. Blackwater Refuge has lost about 5,000 acres of marshland since the 1940s. Moreover, tree-planting also fights a central cause of climate change: the build-up of greenhouse gases.

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Connecticut: Shoring up a Shrinking Island for Endangered Roseate Terns

Aerial view of Falkner island, a 4.5 acre crescent shaped island with a rocky coast

An aerial view of Falkner Island, home to the only roseate tern nesting colony in Connecticut Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary

The roseate tern is a federally endangered seabird whose favored nesting areas are found on rocky offshore islands and barrier beaches along the north Atlantic coast of the U.S.

Unfortunately, the tern is losing some of its prime seacoast habitat. The land is disappearing due to erosion that may be made worse by climate change. Increasing atmospheric temperatures are linked to rising seas and more intense storms, which eat away at the shore.

Falkner Island, off the Connecticut coast in Long Island Sound, is home each spring to 40 to 50 pairs of nesting roseate terns – the only colony remaining in the state. Most of the terns nest on the north spit of the island, a sand and cobble environment.

Falkner Island is a unit of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut. Refuge Manager Rick Potvin estimates that the island is losing about 300 to 400 square feet of land each year due to erosion. He predicts that in the next few years the north spit nesting area will revert to tidal zone and will become unsuitable habitat for breeding terns.

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Florida: Climate Change and the People Factor

A deer reaches upwards to eat fruit

Florida is a unique ecosystem where subtropical wildlife and habitats mix with their cooler-counterparts. Where else could one find an endangered Key deer eating a red mangrove? Accelerating climate change is expected to throw off the delicate balance. Photo: USFWS

Video iconVideo: Scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discuss the effects climate change will have on the state of Florida, stressing the need to develop our science and methods of addressing this massive change.

Nowhere else, with the possible exception of Alaska, is climate change expected to be as dramatic as in Florida. The signs are already here. 

  • In the Florida Keys, just a half-foot rise in sea level over the last 100 years reduced the pine rockland forest on one island by two-thirds. The globally imperiled habitat is home to many plants and animals that exist nowhere else, including the endangered Key deer, a smaller cousin of the white-tailed deer.
  • Along the coasts, beaches are eroding from a combination of sea-level rise and storms, reducing the sea turtles’ nesting habitat.
  • Fifty years ago, sooty terns would arrive in April on Bush Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park, the largest U.S. nesting colony for the seabird. Now they arrive starting in late January.

Florida’s low elevation makes it especially susceptible to sea-level rise, and its fragile ecosystems are sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation. Climate change is also expected to compound multiple threats already facing south Florida’s wildlife and habitat: habitat loss, droughts and competition with exotic species.

For the human population, sea-level rise could drastically affect drinking water supplies and flood protection. Sea water is already creeping into groundwater sources, and flooding is a regular occurrence in some coastal areas.

But as biologists and conservationists begin to grapple with how to safeguard wildlife as climate change accelerates, they need new tools. Most computer models and forecasts won’t do the job. That’s because people play a deciding role, altering ecosystems with new roads, buildings and other infrastructure.

People have to be factored in to future climate scenarios.

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Texas: In Face of Climate Change, Coast Is Not Clear for Whooping Cranes

Two whooping cranes seem to be dancing across water as they take flight

A pair of whooping cranes skim over tidal marsh habitat at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo is for USFWS use only.

Video iconMultimedia: Video on YouTube; Podcast

Even though a record-breaking 281 whooping cranes wintered this past season at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas, climate change is a major concern for the charismatic endangered species.

The primary threat to the cranes’ survival, according to Aransas Refuge manager Dan Alonso, is rapidly disappearing coastal habitat. Most of the habitat is being devoured by burgeoning real estate development along the Gulf of Mexico, but climate change is exacerbating the problem. A secondary concern related to climate change is the prospect of prolonged drought, which would reduce the flow of freshwater and leave marsh habitat unacceptably saline for cranes.

The Aransas Refuge population – the only natural flock of whooping cranes in North America – nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada in spring and summer. From early fall to December, the cranes migrate in small groups to the Texas refuge. In early spring, they rush 2,500 miles back up to Canada in 15-16 days.

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Mississippi: A Terrapin's View of Climate Change

Terrapin in profile

The Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is researching the diamondback terrapin turtle, whose habitat is likely to be inundated as the sea rises. Photo by Christina Mohrmann/Grand Bay NERR.

Photo iconPhotos: Terrapin photos on Flickr

The 10,216-acre Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge is under threat from the very thing that gives it life – the Gulf of Mexico and its changing sea levels.

The refuge rests in a low-lying coastal area across state lines between Biloxi, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama. Savannas cover the flatlands while bayous, marshes, and islands sprawl along the shoreline. Ospreys outnumber people.

The refuge is just inches above sea level. So is the adjoining Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, an 18,400-acre area funded by NOAA and administered by the State of Mississippi to promote estuarine research and education within the coastal zone.

It’s the home of the Mississippi diamondback terrapin, a feisty little water turtle that is slowly disappearing thanks to over-harvesting and habitat loss. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the terrapin as a species of concern, a sort of watch list for species in decline. 

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Last updated: June 21, 2012