CCSP, 2009: Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region. A report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. [James G. Titus (Coordinating Lead Author), K. Eric Anderson, Donald R. Cahoon, Dean B. Gesch, Stephen K. Gill, Benjamin T. Gutierrez, E. Robert Thieler, and S. Jeffress Williams (Lead Authors)]. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D.C., USA, 320 pp.

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This Synthesis and Assessment Product (SAP), developed as part of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, examines potential effects of sea-level rise from climate change during the twenty-first century, with a focus on the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. Using scientific literature and policy-related documents, the SAP describes the physical environments; potential changes to coastal environments, wetlands, and vulnerable species; societal impacts and implications of sea-level rise; decisions that may be sensitive to sea-level rise; opportunities for adaptation; and institutional barriers to adaptation. The SAP also outlines the policy context in the mid-Atlantic region and describes the implications of sea-level rise impacts for other regions of the United States. Finally, this SAP discusses ways natural and social science research can improve understanding and prediction of potential impacts to aid planning and decision making.

Projections of sea-level rise for the twenty-first century vary widely, ranging from several centimeters to more than a meter. Rising sea level can inundate low areas and increase flooding, coastal erosion, wetland loss, and saltwater intrusion into estuaries and freshwater aquifers. Existing elevation data for the mid-Atlantic United States do not provide the degree of confidence needed for local decision making. Systematic nationwide collection of high-resolution elevation data would improve the ability to conduct detailed assessments in support of planning. The coastal zone is dynamic and the response of coastal areas to sea-level rise is more complex than simple inundation. Much of the United States consists of coastal environments and landforms such as barrier islands and wetlands that will respond to sea-level rise by changing shape, size, or position. The combined effects of sea-level rise and other climate change factors such as storms may cause rapid and irreversible coastal change. All these changes will affect coastal habitats and species. Increasing population and development in coastal areas also affects the ability of natural ecosystems to adjust to sea-level rise.

Coastal communities and property owners have responded to coastal hazards by erecting shore protection structures, elevating land and buildings, or relocating inland. Accelerated sea-level rise would increase the costs and environmental impacts of these responses. Shoreline armoring can eliminate the land along the shore to which the public has access; beach nourishment projects often increase access to the shore.

Preparing for sea-level rise can be justified in many cases, because the cost of preparing now is small compared to the cost of reacting later. Examples include wetland protection, flood insurance, longlived infrastructure, and coastal land-use planning. Nevertheless, preparing for sea-level rise has been the exception rather than the rule. Most coastal institutions were based on the implicit assumption that sea level and shorelines are stable. Efforts to plan for sea-level rise can be thwarted by several institutional biases, including government policies that encourage coastal development, flood insurance maps that do not consider sea-level rise, federal policies that prefer shoreline armoring over soft shore protection, and lack of plans delineating which areas would be protected or not as sea level rises.

The prospect of accelerated sea-level rise and increased vulnerability in coastal regions underscores the immediate need for improving our scientific understanding of and ability to predict the effects of sea-level rise on natural systems and society. These actions, combined with development of decision support tools for taking adaptive actions and an effective public education program, can lessen the economic and environmental impacts of sea-level rise.