By Jeff Peterson | EcoWatch
We're already getting a glimpse of how bad things can get.
The three major storms of 2017 — Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria — caused more than 3,000 deaths and some $275 billion in damages. The longer-term ecosystem impacts of major storms like these are harder to quantify, but no less important. These include shifting of beaches and dunes, saltwater intrusion to freshwater systems, ecosystems contaminated by polluted floodwaters, and damage to habitat, oyster beds and coral. Rising sea levels are steadily pushing storm damage farther inland.
The country has done surprisingly little to meet this daunting challenge. As I wrote in my book A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas, there are steps that need to be taken now to help protect coastal ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.
A first step toward better protecting beaches and coastal wetlands is to understand the risks they face from storms and rising seas.
Scientists predict that as the climate warms, coastal storms will become more intense and melting glaciers and ice sheets could push global sea level up four feet by 2100. Along the U.S. coast, the rise in sea level could be 15 to 25 percent higher due to land subsidence and ocean dynamics.
What will this mean for ecosystems? It's hard to know exactly.
There is currently no national assessment of how ecosystems along the U.S. coast will change. What little we do know points to serious decline in the health of these resources.
For example, a study of the Gulf of Mexico region predicted these losses of coastal wetlands by 2060: 37 percent in Texas, 32 percent in Florida, and 26 percent in Alabama and Mississippi. A 2017 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that up to 31 percent of California beaches would be lost in the event of 3 feet of sea-level rise and 67 percent in the event of 6 feet.
As beaches and wetlands are inundated or migrate inland, some of the ecosystem services they provide will be lost. We are likely to see diminished abundance and diversity of fish and wildlife. Other benefits of coastal ecosystems that are at risk include protection from the impacts of storm surges, protection of water quality, mitigation of coastal erosion, and sequestration of carbon.
The effects of more severe storms and rising oceans on fish and wildlife are not well studied, but the Center for Biological Diversity (publisher of The Revelator) reported that 233 threatened and endangered species in 23 coastal states — roughly 1 out of 6 of the country's protected species — are at risk from sea-level rise.
In addition to suffering damages from storms and gradual inundation by rising seas, coastal ecosystems may fall victim to human efforts to protect communities and infrastructure from these risks.
Built structures such as seawalls, damage beach systems and can prevent healthy functioning of marshes and wetlands. Living shorelines, which use natural materials such as plants, sand, or rock to stabilize the shoreline, are an improvement over conventional concrete seawalls but can have some of the same damaging impacts. Beach restoration projects can also harm the ecosystem of the beach as well as the sites from which sand is taken.