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A Talk on the Wild Side.

A Plan for Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

When the sea is rising, you’d better have a plan.

At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia coast, rising sea levels and severe weather are wreaking havoc with visitor parking and threaten to completely reshape the landscape by the end of the century.

Chincoteague PoniesPhoto: Emma Kerr/USFWS

“I don’t know how many more storms we can take,” says Refuge Manager Lou Hinds. The visitor parking lot adjacent to the recreational beach has been washed out nearly a dozen times in the past several years, forcing the Refuge and the National Park Service to spend about $500,000 a year in taxpayer dollars to repair the damage.


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.