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Sea level rise at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge presents Alternative Transportation Study

At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the southern tip of Assateague Island, the sea playfully laps at the picturesque, sandy beach. Or so it seems, on this cloudless spring morning on Virginia’s eastern coast.

Last November, a severe Nor’easter hit the Eastern seaboard, flooding parts of the refuge and washing out the parking lots adjacent to the public beach. The lots, about 50  yards from the ocean, can hold approximately 960 cars, servicing the 3,000 – 4,000 people a day who visit the beach during peak summer months.

“I don’t know how many more storms we can take,” said Refuge Manager Lou Hinds.

Last year, the parking lots, made of loose shell and sand so as not to disrupt the natural terrain, were over-washed eight times by storms – more than any year in recent memory. Every time the lots are washed away, the National Park Service, who maintain the beach in partnership with the Service, has to rebuild the lots at a cost that can exceed $600,000. It’s a cost the American taxpayer has born almost on an annual basis only to see Mother Nature hit the reset button during the next, inevitable storm and wash it all away.

Climate change looms like a swirling thundercloud over the heads of coastal communities, many of whom will likely be some of the first areas to see its effects. Sea level rise and increasing frequency and intensity of storms threatens to significantly alter existing coastlines – displacing both the wildlife and people who for generations have called the shore their home. For towns like Chincoteague that depend on tourism for economic survival, landscape changes could have an impact to the local economy.

Here, and around the globe, the beach and ocean are inextricably linked. Likewise, the fate of the town of Chincoteague and the refuge are deeply intertwined and have been for generations.

Nearly 50 years ago, the bridge connecting the town of Chincoteague to the refuge was built. That act cemented the town’s economy to the refuge.

Beach access is the central component of this relationship. Beach parking allows for convenient public access to the beach, fostering a vibrant eco-tourism industry that has become the basis of the town’s economy.

“70 – 80 percent of the town’s businesses depend on the beach,” said Chincoteague Mayor Jack Tarr.

In January of 2008, Chincoteague NWR, the Service and its partners, Assateague Island National Seashore, the National Park Service, the Town of Chincoteague, and Accomack County contracted with the VOLPE Center, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation to produce an Alternative Transportation Study (pdf). The purpose of the study is to gather information, identify transportation issues, and develop and analyze possible alternatives.

“The recently completed study is just that – a study,” said Hinds. “A course of action has yet to be determined, but will be the subject of further public meetings in preparation for the 2012 Comprehensive Conservation Planning document (CCP).

The alternatives in the study range from no action to relocating all beach parking off of the refuge, an option most Chincoteague residents were particularly concerned about at the study’s April 6 public roll-out.

Hundreds of Chincoteague residents – some whose families have lived in the town for generations – attended the April 6 public meeting. The atmosphere was tense as Hinds and Michael Dyer of VOLPE presented the study.

Many residents expressed opinions ranging from skepticism to downright outrage at the prospect of moving parking entirely off the beach. Mayor Tarr noted that families – who make up the majority of Chincoteague visitors – like the convenience of driving directly to the beach.

“We have a short [tourism] season at Chincoteague and we’re in competition with other beach communities for visitors,” said Mayor Tarr. “If we move the parking off of the beach, how do we keep visitors happy? What would the town look like without tourism?”

While a plan of action has yet to be developed, Refuge Manager Lou Hinds noted that every year, the sea level at Chincoteague is rising – slowly, but surely.

“Our goal is to engage the community and come up with a plan that is both responsible and sustainable for the future,” said Hinds.

In 1964, the U.S. Geological Survey planted a marker in the sand near the Chincoteague public beach and recorded the distance from the marker to the surf – 115 paces. Refuge Manager Lou Hinds happened upon that very same marker earlier this year. Today, the marker is in the surf.

“In less than 50 years, 115 yards of beach has been lost,” said Hinds. “We don’t have another 50 years.”

Story by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intern Bill Butcher.

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Climate Modeling at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Rising sea levels threaten to reshape coastal habitats – swallowing coastlines, submerging marshlands, and radically altering habitats further inland. For coastal refuges like Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and its robust shorebird populations, sea level rise will produce dramatic changes to both the refuge’s landscape and management efforts to protect wildlife within its bounds.

With over 1.4 million visitors annually, Chincoteague NWR, off the northeast coast of Virginia, is one the most popular refuges in the United States – for people and wildlife. Located along the Atlantic flyway, tens of thousands of migratory birds call the refuge “home” during the spring and fall seasons, including threatened species, like the piping plover. The refuge is also home to land mammals like the endangered Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel and the world famous Chincoteague Ponies.

Chincoteague NWR has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area and one of the top ten birding hotspots by the National Audubon Society. But this idyllic location faces profound threats from sea level rise associated with rising global temperatures and melting polar ice caps.

“Older maps of the refuge and the town of Chincoteague tell a distinct story,” said Lou Hinds, refuge manager at Chincoteague NWR. “The actual land mass is shrinking and sea level rise is the main culprit.”

Recently, Hinds and the refuge began the pre-planning stage of their Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) - a roadmap for the next 15 years.

“Sea level rise has framed our view of the CCP,” said Hinds. “I realized we had to start gathering data to inform management decisions – not just for the next 15 years, but for future generations of refuge managers to follow me.”

To determine the extent to which sea level rise will affect Chincoteague NWR, the refuge commissioned a climate model specifically designed to predict the effects of rising sea levels on coastal habitats.

The Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model or SLAMM, has been used to predict the effects of sea level rise for over twenty years. In April of 2009, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released SLAMM-View, a new user-friendly internet tool that allows the public to view simulations of sea level rise. A web browser-based application SLAMM-View displays map pairs of the same area, each at different sea level predictions.

SLAMM is designed to predict the amount of long term habitat shift in a coastal area. As sea levels rise throughout the 21st century, today’s coastal forest may slowly evolve into a salt marsh, then a mudflat, and eventually open water.

SLAMM-View’s side-by-side comparisons can be set for dozens of different scenarios – for example, current sea levels and habitat distribution compared to predicted sea level and habitat distribution at the end of the century.

The modeling was completed for Chincoteague NWR in September 2009. The results were disturbing.

It was a dreary Friday afternoon when Hinds received some of the early projections. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Hinds, “and took my breath away.”

What the model predicted was nothing less than a wholesale transformation of the refuge. Vast swaths of wetlands, and the precious shorebird habitats contained within, would likely be radically altered – or even under water – in 2100.

According to the model, rising sea levels over the next 100 years will flood coastal marshlands and transform inland habitats at Chincoteague NWR – producing a cascade effect on the refuge’s habitats.

As troubling as it may be, models such as SLAMM are essential for land managers like Hinds to predict where essential habitats for shorebirds and other wildlife, including endangered and threatened species, will be lost and possibly gained in the future.

“Several species of shorebirds are in trouble,” said Hinds. “As sea levels rise and habitats shift, it’s imperative for us to know where shorebird habitats will migrate to.”

Currently, acquiring precise elevation data is one of the key challenges to predicting the future migration of essential shorebird habitats. Vegetation on the ground can make it difficult to establish an area’s exact elevation and therefore how it will be transformed by rising sea levels. “Bare earth elevations” that have mathematically eliminated vegetation from the data set are needed to reduce uncertainty in the model and accurately predict how habitats will shift and evolve in the future.

To confront this challenge, The Marine Science Consortium and NASA have joined forces with Chincoteague NWR and the Service. The working group will gather precise bare earth elevation data for the refuge to better refine the SLAMM analysis.

“This is a crucial first step towards developing a more refined SLAMM analysis,” said Hinds, “and we’re excited to begin the process along with our partners The Marine Science Consortium and NASA.”

In the meantime, SLAMM-View illustrates the dramatic physical changes that are predicted to occur in refuges like Chincoteague that we’ve come to know and love. The visual evidence is striking and yet another reminder that future generations depend on the current one to ensure that they are able to enjoy the natural world as we do today.

Story by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intern Bill Butcher.

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