Estuaries Feeling The Effects Of Climate Change
August 8, 2013

Climate Change Threats To United States Estuaries

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

A new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Ocean Service reveals the nation's 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves (NERR) are experiencing the negative effects of human and climate-related stressors.

The NERR System serves as a network of "living laboratories" around the country. Each represents a unique biogeographically diverse coastal ecosystem.

The national study, Climate Sensitivity of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, has identified three East Coast reserves (Sapelo Island NERR in Georgia, ACE Basin NERR in South Carolina and Waquoit Bay NERR in Massachusetts) and one West Coast reserve (Tijuana River NERR on the California-Mexico border) as the most vulnerable to climate change.

"The National Estuarine Research Reserves are uniquely positioned across the US to assess ongoing climate change in our nation's estuaries which is the degree to which the natural resources and the local communities who depend on them are affected by changing climate conditions," said Dwight Trueblood, PhD, NOAA program manager for the study. "This information is important to helping coastal managers and local community leaders make informed decisions about the best ways for coastal communities to adapt to climate change."

An estuary is a place where a river meets the sea. These places provide nursery habitat for fish and shellfish, while buffering many coastal communities from the impacts of coastal storms and sea level rise. First alarm indicators about the effects of climate change on the coastal ecosystems are provided by the climate exposure of each reserve. Real time data about climate change impacts on these important natural resources is collected during ongoing research at each reserve.

Close to 40 percent of US citizens, around 123 million people, live in counties directly adjacent to shoreline. They depend upon these resources for food, jobs, storm protection, and recreation. Coastal watershed counties, which support more than 51 million jobs, account for approximately 50 percent - $6.6 trillion USD - of the nation's gross domestic product.

By looking at five factors (social, biophysical, and ecological sensitivity, and exposure to temperature change and sea level rise), the research team was able to determine the extent of relative climate sensitivity in the reserves.

The team examined reserve ecological resilience, finding the key underlying estuarine stressors to be toxic pollutants, storm impacts, invasive species, habitat fragmentation, sedimentation and shoreline erosion. They identified residential development, land use, population growth, wastewater treatment and sea level rise as being the most frequent factors contributing to the stressors.

The research team found higher social sensitivity to climate change was indicated where there is higher employment within natural resource-dependent industries, lower per capita income and median home values, higher percentages of minority populations, and a higher percentage of individuals lacking a high school education.

The study found social sensitivity to climate change was generally highest in the southern portions of the East and West coasts of the US, the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

The study also revealed each reserve's relationship between annual spring atmospheric temperature and rainfall data and water quality factors such as water temperature, dissolved oxygen and pH was summarized by biophysical sensitivity.

Reserves located in the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast regions of the country were found to be at greatest risk for temperature change exposure, while reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, parts of the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, California, and Oregon showed the greatest risk of sea level rise exposure.