Working to keep the West special

Atlantic Coast National Seashores in Peril

Climate change is already affecting the seven national seashores on the Atlantic Coast: Cape Cod (in Massachusetts) , Fire Island (New York), Assateague Island (Maryland and Virginia), Cape Hatteras (North Carolina), Cape Lookout (North Carolina), Cumberland Island (Georgia), and Canaveral (Florida) national seashores. That is documented in a report, Atlantic National Seashores in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption, released in August 2012 by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ultimately, the greatest threat to the seashores is that they will be submerged under a higher ocean, driven by a hotter climate. The report includes the first sets of maps to show the low-lying lands in these national seashores that are particularly vulnerable to inundation by a rising ocean in this century, and before that to destruction of bridges and roads, ecosystem losses, and disintegration of barrier islands by the forces of rising waters and stronger coastal storms. The maps show that in Fire Island, Assateague Island, Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Canaveral over half of the seashore lands are lower than one meter (3.3 feet) above the current sea level, and so are highly vulnerable.

The above maps of the Maryland unit of Assateague Island National Seashore shows current lands that are one meter or less above the current sea level (left image) and the national seashore and selected features (right). Sources: Overpeck and Weiss, University of Arizona (left), and RMCO, based on a National Park Service map. (See the report for details.)

The effects on visitor access could be profound, long before the seashores are largely covered by a higher ocean. In the near term, the threats primarily are of more frequent and long-lasting temporary closures of key bridges and roads that provide visitor access to those seashores. In the long term, the current transportation infrastructure may not be adequate, forcing permanent closures of the current roads and their replacement with alternative methods of access. At some point, the decisive factor in whether to continue maintaining current roads or to provide alternative access likely will be the high governmental costs, in tight budget times, of continually rebuilding washed-out bridges and roads.

The report includes new projections of future temperatures in the seashores. If emissions of heat-trapping pollutants go up at a medium-high rate, average summer temperatures in Assateague Island could become as recent summers in Key West, those in Cape Hatteras as hot as those in Galveston, and those in Canaveral as hot as those in Desert Rock, Nevada.

The seven national seashores, which are part of the national park system, draw a total of about 11 million visitors a year, contributing to the economy of seven states by generating more than half a billion dollars in spending and supporting nearly 8,000 jobs. An additional, immeasurable economic value of the seashores is that they contain islands, dunes, and other shoreline features that are the first line of defense protecting human populations and developments from the often devastating effects of winds and surging flood waters from hurricanes, nor’easters, and other coastal storms.

For many of us, the threat to these special places brings climate change home in a way that threats to distant
places does not. And this is a powerful incentive for us to stop taking so many unnecessary actions that disrupt the
climate. The good news is there are many ways to reduce heat-trapping pollution, and most of those actions also will save money, create jobs, and strengthen our national, local, and personal economies.

The lead report author, Stephen Saunders, the president of RMCO, said, “Human alteration of the climate threatens to undercut our national promise that these special places will be preserved unimpaired for the enjoyment of my children and future generations.”

Theo Spencer, senior advocate in the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “Massive and preventable damage to national seashores is too high a price to pay for failing to act on climate change.  This report makes clear that if we don’t cut the amount of heat-trapping pollution we spew into the air, these special places that Americans love will never be the same. We’ve made some progress, including national standards to make cars cleaner and more efficient, and new health protections from power plant pollution. But more must be done. For starters, we need to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to continue doing its job controlling heat-trapping pollution that harms our health and the places we love.”

S. Jeffress Williams, a retired scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey, speaking in the teleconference at which the report was released, said, “The value of this report is that it not only talks about what the effects might be on the natural resources, but it also talks about the human aspect, to what effect it’s going to have on people who enjoy going to the parks. The report also talks about the economic impact on a regional scale of these changes to the national parks. And so I think that the value of this report is that it’s based on science and it is also focused on not only the natural resources but also the human element.”

Downloads and links:

  • The low-resolution version of the full report is here (10.6 MB in size).
  • A high-resolution version of the report is here (22.5 MB).
  • A news release on the report is available here.
  • An audio recording of the teleconference at which the report was released is available to be heard here.

Maps: High-resolution copies of the pair of maps showing the especially vulnerable low-lying lands in the seashores (as above) can be seen and downloaded:

  • For Cape Cod National Seashore, here
  • For Fire Island National Seashore, here.
  • For Assateague Island's Maryland unit (as above), here.
  • For Cape Hatteras National Seashore, here
  • For Cumberland Island National Seashore, here
  • For Canaveral National Seashore, here.