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A Talk on the Wild Side.

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.  

A plane flying

In partnership with NASA, the Service uses LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) equipped aircraft to map some of the most environmentally sensitive areas on and near the refuge. Photo: USFWS.

The Service has also utilized another high-tech tool to predict the effect of rising sea levels. SLAMM – Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model – helps to forecast habitat transformations as sea levels rise.  SLAMM analyses use a variety of scenarios on individual refuges, including greenhouse gas emissions, land subsidence, buildup of sediments and other variables that affect relative sea levels and habitat types.  SLAMM-View allows users to view different predictions to determine how, for example, a coastal forest may evolve over time into a salt marsh. 

“Where will the coastal habitats move as sea level rises? It is important for us to identify what areas will be suitable wildlife habitat in the future,” said Hinds.

Ground with a reflective target

Reflective targets are placed on the ground as part of the LIDAR research. Photo: USFWS.

Hinds received the SLAMM results for Chincoteague in 2009. The model predicted nearly a complete transformation of the refuge. Vast swaths of wetlands, and the precious shorebird habitats they contain, would likely be radically altered – or even under water – by 2100.

“We’re calling upon more sophisticated modeling technology - such as LIDAR – as it becomes available to predict the future of the salt marshes and other critical habitat,” said Hinds. “The predictive tools we’re using today will help us plan for the future of migrant birds and other wildlife a century from now.” 

Climate Change Focus: Adaptation 

Authors: Frank Wolff and Bill Butcher


  • Lou Hinds, USFWS, 757-336-6122, Louis_Hinds@fws.gov
  • Terri Edwards, USFWS, 413-253-8324, Terri_Edwards@fws.gov
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