The Sea Upon Us

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Federally protected coastal habitat is no match for global warming

 © A. Draugilis

© A. Draugilis

The road ends abruptly at a barrier of steel highway railing. Behind it lies crumbled asphalt, a short spit of beach and the wide open expanse of Delaware Bay. Decades ago, the water’s edge at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware was hundreds of yards out. But here, as in many of the nation’s other coastal wildlife refuges, rising sea levels driven by climate change are washing away vital wildlife habitat.

At Prime Hook, this means that instead of wetland grasses continuing to grow over 4,000 acres in the middle of the marsh—which had provided important habitat for migrating ducks, geese and shorebirds—open water now spans every direction. The marsh has disappeared.

“In 2009, a Veteran’s Day storm created two inlets and brought in the slug of sand and saltwater with its storm surge, killing all the freshwater vegetation,” says Susan Guiteras, the refuge’s supervisory biologist. “Once the plants died, their roots couldn’t hold the marsh muck together, so the peat just washed away, deepening the water to a depth that even saltwater-tolerant plants could not establish.” 

It’s a scenario that reflects the challenge faced by virtually all the country’s 160 coastal national wildlife refuges in a warming world. 

“Even if we begin strict emission-reduction strategies today, substantial shifts in climate patterns can no longer be stopped and will continue for centuries to come,” says Noah Matson, Defenders’ wildlife and climate change expert, who visited Prime Hook in April for a firsthand look at the effects of sea-level rise and coastal storms. “Climate change is already affecting the timing of biological processes and breaking up ecological communities. This poses a major challenge to wildlife conservationists everywhere and threatens to undo decades of conservation work on 20 million coastal acres. As the climate changes, we can no longer count on protected areas delivering the same benefits and habitats they once did.”

Matson’s goal is to gauge the on-the-ground impacts of global warming and assess ways that conservationists can help wildlife on the frontlines adapt to the changes. For example, coastal refuges could plant salt-tolerant vegetation and restore shoreline reefs to stop erosion, which can lessen the impacts of sea-level rise. “This would buy time for species and habitats to adapt,” says Matson. 

Armed with uniform information, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees all 555 national refuges on more than 150 million acres, could then develop a system-wide strategy so that each refuge manager wouldn’t have to face the problem alone or reinvent the wheel when an effective response is already in place somewhere else.

“These shared experiences can provide information and inspiration not only for refuge system employees and other federal, state and local government officials coping with similar issues, but also for conservationists, legislators, journalists and citizens concerned about rising sea levels and climate change,” Matson says.  

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