By Lauren Campbell
Today's coasts face an unprecedented challenge, struggling to cope and adapt in the midst of a changing climate. In coastal areas, the consequences of climate change are already evident, with global sea-level rising 10 to 25 cm over the last century (Pew, 2009). By 2100, this number is expected to increase anywhere from 0.5 to 1.4 meters above the 1990 level (Rhamstorf, 2007). Increased incidence and severity of coastal storms and hurricanes are also predicted to result from warming oceans and weather anomalies. Coastal zones are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and enhanced storms, facing serious impacts including: (1) inundation and displacement of wetlands and lowlands; (2) increased coastal erosion; (3) increased coastal storm flooding; and (4) salinization (Barth & Titus, 1984). Widespread human development in many of these areas further compromises the coastal system's natural integrity, simultaneously augmenting erosion and forfeiting inherent resiliency. Yet due to differences in regional oceanographic responses to climate change, as well as the extent of local/regional uplift/subsidence of the land surface, the impacts of sea-level rise will vary according to location (Nicholls & Mimura, 1998).
While present and future climate changes pose serious threats to our coastal zones and resources, Surfrider's current beach health indicators do not completely measure environmental quality or assess the status of coastal management in light of climate change impacts. In 2011 the State of the Beach report therefore focused on re-defining the Erosion Response indicator to more completely address coastal climate change adaptation, specifically concentrating on the response of coastal areas to sea level rise. Although climate change can affect coastal regions in a variety of ways, the scope of this article is limited to analyzing the following aspects of climate change adaptation: (1) coastal erosion; (2) shoreline armoring; (3) beach fill (aka nourishment); (4) set-backs; and (5) restoration of natural beach and wetland ecosystems. The report evaluates the adequacy of coastal states' climate change preparedness by determining if existing policies are able to address climate change issues, and the extent to which states are proactively responding to these issues.
The vast majority of greenhouse gases (GHGs) exhibit relatively long atmospheric residence times, some upwards of a hundred years, creating a lag time between the release of atmospheric pollution and realization of the actual side-effects. Thus regardless of future greenhouse gas emissions, some degree of human-induced climate change will occur for at least the next 100 years. Mitigation measures to remedy global warming, while essential aspects of reducing the impacts of future climate change, alone will be inadequate in addressing the present challenges. Our ability to cope with the effects of today's climate changes instead hinges largely on our ability to adapt to future changes.
"Climate change adaptation" is a term increasingly used to describe social efforts dealing with the effects of climate change, yet is unfortunately defined by a number of conflicting environmental and social goals. In one of the more comprehensive definitions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines climate change adaption as an "adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities: (IPCC TAR, 2001). Adopting a relatively broad stance, the IPCC definition attempts to merge both environmental and social considerations, and importantly, avoids specifying a defensive approach to climate change management. A number of contrasting definitions more fully embrace the notion of "resiliency", choosing to retroactively address the consequences rather than anticipate and cope with the immediate changes.
Passed in 1972, the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) sought to balance economic development with environmental conservation, mainly by avoiding the scenario described above. Outlined in the National Coastal Zone Management Program, CZMA encourages states to develop and implement coastal zone management plans to protect, restore, and develop the resources of the Nation's coastal zone for present and future generations. A number of states are also recognizing the importance of pre-emptive action to address their vulnerability to climate change (Pew, 2009). As such, a majority of coastal states have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, adaptation plans that fall within their larger state Climate Action Plans (Pew, 2009). Yet many of these adaptation plans are quite broad or vague, and thus fail to sufficiently address more specific adaptation issues. The independent nature of creating and implementing adaptation plans also tends to create disconnects between states, making it difficult to adequately evaluate and compare individual adaptation programs. It is therefore necessary to define adaptation plans in more precise terms and develop specific baseline criteria by which to compare state plans.
The point of coastal management is not to pit environmental and social goals against one other, but rather forge a degree of sustainable compatibility. The future of our coasts, along with the livelihoods of millions, rests in our ability to respect the coastline for the dynamic and vibrant system it is. By recognizing this basic principle, and learning to live with a changing coast rather than against it, both environmental and social objectives can be more fully satisfied. It is therefore essential to replace current reactive management schemes with ones inherently proactive. An anticipatory approach, one accounting for current and future erosion rates and climate change perturbation, will force communities to develop accordingly. This approach will help better preserve coastlines by maintaining or restoring their natural functions, ensuring the safety and longevity of coastal communities, and minimizing the long-term costs associated with climate change response.
In order to protect human development and beachside communities from the destructive impacts of climate changes, management efforts in many cases center on coastal fortification, a reactionary approach which can include one or more of the following: seawall, groin, and jetty construction, beach re-nourishment, and inshore artificial reefs. Environmental consequences are frequently overlooked or disregarded in the process, often resulting in significant ecosystem disruption and perturbation of natural accretion and erosion cycles. In many areas, for example, the coast is threatened not only from its seaward side by physical ocean processes, but also from its landward side by encroaching development. Trapped between these two competing forces, natural sand and sediment transport is largely interrupted, forcing the coast to undergo a number of unnatural restructuring processes.
The only real option for coastal areas facing significant threats from sea level rise is thus adoption of a managed retreat policy, whereby homes and development are moved away from the shoreline so as to allow natural oceanic processes to run their course. Yet managed retreat is a hotly contested issue among private property owners, who stand to lose not only millions of dollars in property value, but even their homes. Managed retreat can also be extremely costly to state and local municipalities, and when considering such coastal cities as Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City, seems highly unfeasible. It is obvious, then, why the managed retreat option has been slow to catch on at either the state or national level. Nevertheless, some local communities facing especially severe erosion issues have begun to accept the fact that the sea can only be withheld for so long. The beachside community of Pacifica, California, for example, is in the process of buying up private property along the coast, and relocating coastal structures further inland. The same scenario has played out at Surfer's Point in Ventura, California, where the first phase of a managed retreat project has been implemented to effectively relocate a parking lot and bike path. Likewise, Texas, Rhode Island, Maine, and South Carolina's coastal zones all benefit from a degree of rolling setbacks, a policy akin to managed retreat that allows private coastal property owners to develop their land, but prohibits the erection of seawalls and barriers once sea levels begin to threaten the structures. Other states (e.g., Hawai'i, North Carolina) are choosing instead to adopt strict setback requirements based on past and future sea level rises, and while not conferring the same long-term benefits as managed retreat, nevertheless represent a step in the right direction.
In the wake of the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, coastal managers in New York, New Jersey and other states are re-thinking their options for dealing with future major storms and future sea level rise. New York offered coastal homeowners in certain areas a buyout program to incentivize moving away from the coast and turning that land into greenspace intended to provide protection from future storms. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has spoken in favor of limited retreat as well as the development of natural buffer zones. An Op-Ed In a Global Warming World: Protect and Rebuild or Retreat? by Bill Chameides, Dean, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University further explores these options.
NOAA has developed a map showing the relative vulnerability of our nation's coasts to sea level rise.
Despite these initiatives, the adoption of state and local adaptation plans, and the recognition that climate change will pose unprecedented threats to our coastal areas, no state is adequately prepared to handle the impacts of climate change in the coastal zone. Formidable obstacles in the form of private property owners, million dollar investments, and difficulties in facilitating and implementing widespread retreat have served to severely stall adaptation progress throughout the nation. Adaptation isn't easy, and requires a shift in mindset both on behalf of coastal managers as well as local communities and individuals. It takes willingness to change, in addition to an understanding of the importance of that change to the long-term health of our coastlines. Yet how do we even begin to address climate change adaptation in states that don't even acknowledge the issue of climate change itself? Slowly, though, states are recognizing the importance of education and collaboration, creating Web portals and outreach materials designed to educate coastal property owners and communities on the issues surrounding climate change and sea level rise. Instead of the top-down approach employed widely in the past, there is an increasing propensity towards bottom-up initiatives and capacity building. The following highlights the "Good", the "Bad" and the "Rad" with respect to adaptation initiatives. Yet as previously suggested, all states need to continue to work towards enhancing their coastal zone management programs and policies, and begin to consider the future of their coastal areas in the face of rising seas.
The following outlines essential elements of effective coastal management plans and state climate change adaptation plans, highlighting key criteria to guide future coastal development and management practices. Some of the criteria are further used as part of Surfrider Foundation's Erosion Response indicator.
NOAA’s Digital Coast Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer provides online access to several scenarios of future high tides, uncertainty maps, and information on marsh migration, social vulnerability, and flood frequency. These visualization tools can be used to improve understanding of potential impacts from sea level rise and assist planning efforts in coastal communities.
NOAA's Coastal Resources Center has developed Roadmap for Adapting to Coastal Risk, an online, three-hour course where participants learn how to characterize community exposure to coastal hazards, and to assess how plans and policies already on the books can be used to jump-start adaptation strategies. Here are examples of how the Roadmap is being used by communities in New York, Florida and Pennsylvania to address their risk and vulnerability issues associated with hazards and climate change.
The Association of State Floodplain Managers has recently released How-To Guide for No Adverse Impact: Mitigation (PDF, 12.6 MB) and How-To Guide for No Adverse Impact: Infrastructure (PDF, 3 MB), the first two in a series of No Adverse Impact (NAI) Toolkit How-To Guides. The publications were developed to expand on the knowledge base within the original NAI Toolkit and to provide specific tools for incorporating NAI floodplain management into local regulations, ordinances, requirements, design, standards, and practices.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers takes climate change and climate change adaptation seriously. They believe "The entire portfolio of USACE Civil Works water resources infrastructure and programs, existing and proposed, could be affected by climate change and adaptation to climate change. Numerous regulatory decisions made by USACE will need to be informed by climate change impacts and adaptation considerations throughout the U.S., especially in western states." Their Responses to Climate Change website addresses these concerns and includes an Adaptation Policy and Plan.
The October 2011 report Federal Actions for a Climate Resilient Nation: Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force provides an update on actions in key areas of Federal adaptation, including: building resilience in local communities, safeguarding critical natural resources such as freshwater, and providing accessible climate information and tools to help decision-makers manage climate risks. This report follows the Task Force's October 2010 Progress Report to the President that recommended the Federal Government strengthen the Nation's capacity to better understand and manage climate-related risks.
A report The State of Marine and Coastal Adaptation in North America: A Synthesis of Emerging Ideas was published by EcoAdapt in January 2011. The report, which is the culmination of a nearly 18 month survey of marine and coastal climate change adaptation projects and initiatives in North America, summarizes climate impacts and provides summaries and examples of adaptation actions implemented throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
NOAA’s Digital Coast has recently released What Will Adaptation Cost?: An Economic Framework for Coastal Community Infrastructure, a report designed to help communities make more economically informed decisions about adapting to sea level rise and storm flooding. The report’s four-step framework can be used to perform an assessment of the costs and benefits of different adaptation approaches across a community. An executive summary (PDF, 318 KB) and full report (PDF, 2.9 MB) are available.
Surfrider’s State of the Beach Erosion Response (contains a subsection on climate change adaptation) – evaluates each state’s adaptation efforts and provides links to relevant info and tools. Direct links to each state's page are here:
Barth, M.C., & Titus, J.G. (Eds.). (1984). Greenhouse effect and sea level rise: a challenge for this generation. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc.
IPCC TAR, 2001. Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. IPCC Third Assessment Report, Cambridge University Press.
Nicholls, R.J., & Mimura, N. (1998). Regional issues raised by sea-level rise and their policy implications. Climate Research, 11, 5-18.
OECD & IEA. (2006). Adaptation to Climate Change: Key Terms.Paris, France: Levina, E. & Tirpak, D.
Pew Center on Global Climate Change & the Pew Center on the States. (2009). Climate Change 101: Understanding and Responding to Global Climate Change : Adaptation. Retrieved from http://www.pewclimate.org/docUploads/Adaptation_0.pdf
Rahmstorf. S. (2007). A semi-empirical approach to projecting future sea-level rise. Science, 315(5810), 368-370.
Secretariat of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Glossary of climate change acronyms. Retrieved from http://unfccc.int/essential_background/glossary/items/3666.php
Titus, J.G. (1984). Planning for sea level rise before and after a coastal disaster. In M. Barth & J. Titus (Eds.), Greenhouse effect and sea level rise: a challenge for this generation. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc.
USGCRP. (2008). Preliminary Review of Adaption Options for Climate-Sensitive Ecosystems and Resources: Final Report, Synthesis and Assessment Product (SAP 4.4). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., Retrieved from http://downloads.climatescience.gov/sap/sap4-4/sap4-4-final-report-Ch1-ExecSummary.pdf