Coastal residents could experience enhanced tropical storm effects as sea level rises

Much of the Gulf of Mexico coastline is becoming increasingly vulnerable to tropical storm impacts as sea level rises due to the loss of protective coastal habitats. Now, a new study recently published in the journal PLoS One suggests that some of these effects can be ameliorated if coastal ecosystems are allowed to expand as sea level rises and certain management actions are taken. The study reports that six estuary systems along Florida’s Gulf Coast could lose up more than 69,000 ha of coastal forest (18%), 28,000 ha of undeveloped coastal land and 25,000 ha of tidal flat (47%) with approximately 1 m of sea level rise, but could gain more than 12,000 ha of mangrove forest if this habitat is not blocked by sea walls and other manmade structures.

Researchers from The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Chapter and Gulf of Mexico Program studied the effects of sea level rise on six Florida Gulf Coast estuaries (Charlotte Harbor, Tampa Bay, Southern Big Bend, Apalachicola Bay, St. Andrews/ Choctawhatchee Bays and Pensacola Bay) using the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM). SLAMM predicted that the quantity and orientation of coastal habitats will change as sea level rises. The study suggests that some predicted changes such as transition of coastal forest to marsh and loss of coastal marshes to open water can be slowed through implementation of adaptation strategies such as improved management of water flows and sediment transport as well as shoreline stabilizing projects such as the creation of oyster reefs.

“Coastal ecosystems play an important role in protecting people and property from coastal storms” says lead author, Laura Geselbracht, Senior Marine Scientist with the Florida Chapter. “They not only create a distance buffer for people and property, mangrove forests, coastal forests, marshes and beach dunes have been shown to reduce wind and storm surge energy.” Many people in the City of Punta Gorda, for instance, believe the mangrove forest south of town resulted in reduced impacts to the City from Hurricane Charley in 2004. The protective qualities of mangrove forests were also seen following 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 where communities without mangrove buffers suffered greater storm surge related losses.

In addition to reducing some of the impacts of coastal storms, coastal ecosystems provide many other services to people and nature. There are a number of species that rely on these ecosystems for their survival and much of Florida’s coastal economy is dependent on healthy and productive coastal ecosystems.

The study was conducted to inform study area communities about the changes underway in their community and to get them thinking about strategies they can take now to begin adapting to these changes. The report also encourages coastal residents to begin taking action now as costs are more reasonable when spread out over many years and more effective because of greater options.

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