Press Release

From ME to FL: A Threat to Preserved Coastal Lands

Jan 24, 2017

WASHINGTON—The potential impacts of sea-level rise on areas such as Boston, New York, and Miami deservedly receive a lot of attention. Less noticed is the fact that natural lands are also at risk. Governments at all levels and nongovernmental organizations invest billions to preserve vital coastal lands such as parks, wildlife refuges, wetlands, and habitat. In 15 states from Maine to Florida, nearly 15 million acres are protected, approximately 20 percent of the entire land area in shoreline counties. With the threat of sea-level rise, however, efforts to preserve our natural assets themselves would be at serious risk, according to a new study by researchers at Resources for the Future (RFF).

In a blog post describing the research, Coastal Protected Lands and Sea-Level Rise, RFF Fellows Rebecca Epanchin-Niell and Carolyn Kousky, Senior Research Assistant Alexandra Thompson, and Senior Fellow Margaret Walls describe their work to estimate the impacts that sea-level rise will have on these lands. With a state-by-state breakdown of East Coast shoreline states, they show that one-quarter of protected lands in shoreline counties in those 15 East Coast states, approximately 3.8 million acres, would be seriously impacted by 3 feet of sea-level rise.

According to the coauthors, the states with the highest proportions of protected lands that will be adversely affected by a 3-foot rise in sea level are North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. They are also the only states in the study area that have not begun developing state adaptation plans for climate contingencies.

The biggest impacts generally can be seen in the southeastern states. Over half of North Carolina’s, and 43 percent of South Carolina’s, shoreline county protected lands would be affected by a 3-foot rise. By contrast, the New England states will see much smaller effects.

Interestingly, Florida, which has the most state-owned lands exposed to sea-level rise, also spends the most on conservation—more than twice as much annually as New Jersey, which ranks second. South Carolina and Georgia, two of the states that spend the least, both have significant state-owned lands at risk from sea-level rise.

According to the authors, Maryland, by contrast, is a leader in preparing for climate change, especially for its effects on coastal protected lands. The RFF authors write that, “Other states could learn from Maryland.”

In the blog post, they note that the land types most exposed are beaches and dunes, salt marshes, and open water, which includes freshwater ponds and impoundments that are susceptible to saltwater intrusion. The post carries an estimate that 3.2 million acres of estuarine wetlands in total would be adversely impacted by a 3-foot rise in sea level, with 2.4 million of those acres in the southeastern states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

According to the authors, “The southeastern states face a daunting challenge: How to restore or replace the valuable ecosystem services these lands provide.”

Read the full post: Coastal Protected Lands and Sea Level Rise.

Resources for the Future does not take institutional positions. Please attribute any findings to the authors or the research itself. For example, use "According to research from RFF …" rather than "According to RFF …".

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Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC, that conducts rigorous economic research and analysis to improve environmental and natural resource policy.