finding 21.2 : coastal-zone-effects-threaten-region

In the coastal zone, the effects of sea level rise, erosion, inundation, threats to infrastructure and habitat, and increasing ocean acidity collectively pose a major threat to the region.



This finding is from chapter 21 of Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment.

Process for developing key messages: The authors and several dozen collaborators undertook a risk evaluation of the impacts of climate change in the Northwest that informed the development of the four key messages in this chapter (see also Ch. 26: Decision Support). This process considered the combination of impact likelihood and the consequences for the region’s economy, infrastructure, natural systems, human health, and the economically-important and climate sensitive regional agriculture sector (see Dalton et al. 2013a2135da9-c8b1-486f-9656-59d8a52b1975 for details). The qualitative comparative risk assessment underlying the key messages in the Northwest chapter was informed by the Northwest Regional Climate Risk Framing workshop (December 2, 2011, in Portland, OR). The workshop brought together stakeholders and scientists from a cross-section of sectors and jurisdictions within the region to discuss and rank the likelihood and consequences for key climate risks facing the Northwest region and previously identified in the Oregon Climate Change Adaptation Framework.7450bfd8-54cc-4c42-8058-7ae93f7692a5 The approach consisted of an initial qualitative likelihood assessment based on expert judgment and consequence ratings based on the conclusions of a group of experts and assessed for four categories: human health, economy, infrastructure, and natural systems.429802a3-633d-447c-874c-250ae4ee0003 This initial risk exercise was continued by the lead author team of the Northwest chapter, resulting in several white papers that were 1) condensed and synthesized into the Northwest chapter, and 2) expanded into a book-length report on Northwest impacts.a2135da9-c8b1-486f-9656-59d8a52b1975 The NCA Northwest chapter author team engaged in multiple technical discussions via regular teleconferences and two all-day meetings. These included careful review of the foundational technical input report429802a3-633d-447c-874c-250ae4ee0003 and approximately 80 additional technical inputs provided to the NCA by the public, as well additional published literature. They also drew heavily from two state climate assessment reports.219520b8-3d2e-40bf-8c39-fb51ded544d8 2ac1bce9-7e8e-41f5-a3ed-617646370b8c The author team identified potential regional impacts by 1) working forward from drivers of regional climate impacts (for example, changes in temperature, precipitation, sea level, ocean chemistry, and storms), and 2) working backward from affected regional sectors (for example, agriculture, natural systems, and energy). The team identified and ranked the relative consequences of each impact for the region’s economy, infrastructure, natural systems, and the health of Northwest residents. The likelihood of each impact was also qualitatively ranked, allowing identification of the impacts posing the highest risk, that is, likelihood × consequence, to the region as a whole. The key regionally consequential risks thus identified are those deriving from projected changes in streamflow timing (in particular, warming-related impacts in watersheds where snowmelt is an important contributor to flow); coastal consequences of the combined impact of sea level rise and other climate-related drivers; and changes in Northwest forest ecosystems. The Northwest chapter therefore focuses on the implications of these risks for Northwest water resources, key aquatic species, coastal systems, and forest ecosystems, as well as climate impacts on the regionally important, climate-sensitive agricultural sector. Each author produced a white paper synthesizing the findings in his/her sectoral area, and a number of key messages pertaining to climate impacts in that area. These syntheses were followed by expert deliberation of draft key messages by the authors wherein each key message was defended before the entire author team before this key message was selected for inclusion in the report. These discussions were supported by targeted consultation with additional experts by the lead author of each message, and they were based on criteria that help define “key vulnerabilities,” including likelihood of climate change and relative magnitude of its consequences for the region as a whole, including consequences for the region’s economy, human health, ecosystems, and infrastructure.429802a3-633d-447c-874c-250ae4ee0003 Though the risks evaluated were aggregated over the whole region, it was recognized that impacts, risks, and appropriate adaptive responses vary significantly in local settings. For all sectors, the focus on risks of importance to the region’s overall economy, ecology, built environment, and health is complemented, where space allows, by discussion of the local specificity of climate impacts, vulnerabilities and adaptive responses that results from the heterogeneity of Northwest physical conditions, ecosystems, human institutions and patterns of resource use.

Description of evidence base: Given the extent of the coastline, the importance of coastal systems to the region’s ecology, economy, and identity, and the difficulty of adapting in response, the consequences of sea level rise, ocean acidification, and other climate driven changes in ocean conditions and coastal weather are expected to be significant and largely negative, which is why this message was included. Evidence for observed global (eustatic) sea level rise and regional sea level change derives from satellite altimetry and coastal tide gauges. Evidence for projected global sea level rise is described in Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate, in the recent NRC reportecf211c8-9abc-46ce-bf79-4a12099b02df that includes a detailed discussion of the U.S. West Coast, and Parris et al. 2012.d8089822-678e-4834-a1ec-0dca1da35314 Evidence of erosion associated with coastal storms is based on observations of storm damage in some areas of the Northwest. Evidence for erosion and inundation associated with projected sea level rise is based on observations and mapping of coastal elevations and geospatial analyses of the extent and location of inundation associated with various sea level rise and storm surge scenarios. Evidence for climate change impacts on coastal infrastructure derives from geospatial analyses (mapping infrastructure locations likely to be affected by various sea level rise scenarios, storm surge scenarios and/or river flooding scenario), such as those undertaken by various local governments to assess local risks of flooding for the downtown area (Olympia), of sea level rise and storm surge for marine shoreline inundation and risk to public utility infrastructure (Seattle – highest observed tide from NOAA tide gauge added to projected sea levels), and of sea level rise for wastewater treatment plants and associated infrastructure (King County). Vulnerability of coastal transportation infrastructure to climate change has been assessed by combining geospatial risk analyses with expert judgment of asset sensitivity to climate risk and criticality to the transportation system in Washington State and by assessing transportation infrastructure exposure to climate risks associated with sea level rise and river flooding in the region as a whole. Evidence for impacts of climate change on coastal habitat is based on: • model-based studies of projected impacts of sea level rise on tidal habitat showing significant changes in the composition and extent of coastal wetland habitats in Washington and Oregon; • observations of extent and location of coastal armoring and other structures that would potentially impede inland movement of coastal wetlands; • observed changes in coastal ocean conditions (upwelling, nutrients, and sea surface temperatures); biogeographical, physiological, and paleoecological studies indicating a historical decline in coastal upwelling; and global climate model projections of future increases in sea surface temperatures; • modeled projections for increased risk of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Puget Sound associated with higher air and water temperatures, reduced streamflow, low winds, and small tidal variability (i.e., these conditions offer a favorable window of opportunity for HABs); and • observed changes in the geographic ranges, migration timing, and productivity of marine species due to changes in sea surface temperatures associated with cyclical events, such as the interannual El Niño Southern Oscillation and the inter-decadal Pacific Decadal Oscillation and North Pacific Gyre Oscillation. Evidence for historical increases in ocean acidification is from observations of changes in coastal ocean conditions, which also indicate high spatial and temporal variability. Evidence for acidification’s effects on various species and the broader marine food web is still emerging but is based on observed changes in abundance, size, and mortality of marine calcifying organisms and laboratory based and in situ acidification experiments. Evidence for marine species responses to climate change derives from observations of shifts in marine plankton, fish, and seabird species associated with historical changes in ocean conditions, including temperature and availability of preferred foods. Evidence for low adaptive capacity is from observations of extent of degraded or fragmented coastal habitat, existence of few options for mitigating changes in marine chemical properties, observed extent of barriers to inland habitat migration, narrow coastal transportation corridors, and limited transportation alternatives for rural coastal towns. Evidence for low adaptive capacity is also based on the current limitations (both legal and political) of local and state governments to restrict and/or influence shoreline modifications on private lands.

New information and remaining uncertainties: There is significant but well-characterized uncertainty about the rate and extent of future sea level rise at both the global and regional/sub-regional scales. However, there is virtually no uncertainty in the direction (sign) of global sea level rise. There is also a solid understanding of the primary contributing factors and mechanisms causing sea level rise. Other details concerning uncertainty in global sea level rise are treated elsewhere (for example, NRC 2012ecf211c8-9abc-46ce-bf79-4a12099b02df) and in Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate). Regional uncertainty in projected Northwest sea level rise results primarily from global factors such as ice sheet mass balance and local vertical land movement (affecting relative sea level rise). An accurate determination of vertical land deformation requires a sufficient density of monitoring sites (for example, NOAA tide gauges and permanent GPS sites that monitor deformation) to capture variations in land deformation over short spatial scales, and in many Northwest coastal locations such dense networks do not exist. There is a general trend, however, of observed uplift along the northwestern portion of the Olympic Peninsula and of subsidence within the Puget Sound region (GPS data gathered from PBO data sets -- http://pbo.unavco.org/data/gps; see also Chapman and Melbourne 2009dbfe5a51-ff82-4b26-83c8-6a7a1bab146e). There is also considerable uncertainty about potential impacts of climate change on processes that influence storminess and affect coastal erosion in the Northwest. These uncertainties relate to system complexity and the limited number of studies and lack of consensus on future atmospheric and oceanic conditions that will drive changes in regional wind fields. Continued collection and assessment of meteorological data at ocean buoy locations and via remote sensing should improve our understanding of these processes. Uncertainty in future patterns of sediment delivery to the coastal system limit projections of future inundation, erosion, and changes in tidal marsh. For example, substantial increases in riverine sediment delivery, due to climate-related changes in the amount and timing of streamflow, could offset erosion and/or inundation projected from changes in sea level alone. However, there are areas in the Northwest where it is clear that man-made structures have interrupted sediment supply and there is little uncertainty that shallow water habitat will be lost. Although relatively well-bounded, uncertainty over the rate of projected relative sea level rise limits our ability to assess whether any particular coastal habitat will be able to keep pace with future changes through adaptation (for example, through accretion). The specific implications of the combined factors of sea level rise, coastal climate change, and ocean acidification for coastal ecosystems and specific individual species remain uncertain due to the complexity of ecosystem response. However, there is general agreement throughout the peer-reviewed literature that negative impacts for a number of marine calcifying organisms are projected, particularly during juvenile life stages. Projections of future coastal ocean conditions (for example, temperature, nutrients, pH, and productivity) are limited, in part, by uncertainty over future changes in upwelling – climate model scenarios show inconsistent projections for likely future upwelling conditions. Considerable uncertainty also remains in whether, and how, higher average ocean temperatures will influence geographical ranges, abundances, and diversity of marine species, although evidence of changes in pelagic fish species ranges and in production associated with Pacific Ocean temperature variability during cyclical events have been important indicators for potential species responses to climate change in the future. Consequences from ocean acidification for commercial fisheries and marine food web dynamics are potentially very high – while the trend of increasing acidification is very likely, the rate of change and spatial variability within coastal waters are largely unknown and are the subject of ongoing and numerous nascent research efforts. Additional uncertainty surrounds non-climate contributors to coastal ocean chemistry (for example, riverine inputs, anthropogenic carbon, and nitrogen point and non-point source inputs) and society’s ability to mitigate these inputs.

Assessment of confidence based on evidence: There is very high confidence in the global upward trend of sea level rise (SLR) and ocean acidification (OA). There is high confidence that SLR over the next century will remain under an upper bound of approximately 2 meters. Projections for SLR and OA at specific locations are much less certain (medium to low) because of the high spatial variability and multiple factors influencing both phenomena at regional and sub-regional scales. There is medium confidence in the projections of species response to sea level rise and increased temperatures, but low confidence in species response to ocean acidification. Uncertainty in upwelling changes result in low confidence for projections of future change that depend on specific coastal ocean temperatures, nutrient contents, dissolved oxygen content, stratification, and other factors. There is high confidence that significant changes in the type and distribution of coastal marsh habitat are likely, but low confidence in our current ability to project the specific location and timing of changes. There is high confidence in the projections of increased erosion and inundation. There is very high confidence that ocean acidity will continue to increase.

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