Eastern National Seashores Hit Hard By Climate Change: New Report

Labor Day approaches--the last hurrah of summer—and for many people, the last leisurely days at the beach. Sand and sea are a hard combination to beat, especially when they come together in an unspoiled environment, like at our National Seashores. These National Seashores are part of our National Park system, often called “America’s Best Idea.”


Yet a new report that we put out today highlights how some of the most popular and beautiful National Seashores on the East Coast have been suffering from the impacts of climate change and are likely do so more in the future.


The study contains the first set of maps detailing the portions of Atlantic national seashores that are low lying enough to be at real risk of being submerged by rising sea levels.  Other climate change impacts outlined in the report include the loss of bridges and roads that provide access to the seashores, breakup of barrier islands into smaller segments, extensive beach erosion, and loss of wildlife. 


Atlantic National Seashores in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption,” was released in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO) and shows that Fire Island National Seashore (NS) in New York, Assateague Island NS in Maryland and Virginia, Cape Hatteras NS and Cape Lookout NS, both in North Carolina, and Canaveral NS in Florida, all have a majority of their lands less than one meter (3.3 feet) above sea level, and therefore are at serious risk of inundation by a higher sea level. Also at risk to higher seas are particular sections of the remaining two national seashores covered in the report: Cape Cod NS in Massachusetts and Cumberland Island NS in Georgia.


Scientists say there is a good chance that a hotter climate could push seas at least one meter higher in this century.  Cape Cod, Fire Island, Assateague Island, and Cape Hatteras national seashores already are experiencing rates of sea-level rise well above the global average.


More extreme storms have wiped out many sea turtle nests, and reduced the level of males, making reproduction harder. Millions of dollars have been spent rebuilding roads and parking lots at Assateague and Cape Hatteras National Seashores.


Unrestricted heat-trapping pollution is driving up temperatures and fueling increasingly extreme weather. Coastal storms are getting stronger—North Atlantic hurricanes have become more potent in the last 30 years, especially the most powerful ones, our study notes. That increase coincides with a about a 2 degree F increase in sea surface temperatures where hurricanes form.


The good news is that at least some action is being taken to cut global warming pollution, which comes mostly from vehicles and power plants. Yesterday, the Obama Administration announced historic clean car standards (read my colleagues David Doniger’s blog here, and Roland Hwang’s here) which will double new vehicles’ miles per gallon between 2012 and 2025 and cut their carbon pollution in half.  That’s the biggest step the federal government has ever taken to cut our oil dependence and our carbon pollution. 


Now we need to ensure the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to put in place health protections that cut global warming pollution from power plants is not endangered. We also need greater support for clean energy sources like solar, geothermal and wind power. Offshore wind power, for example, has tremendous potential to scale up on the Atlantic coast and become a major source of zero-carbon renewable energy.  The (federal) National Renewable Energy Lab estimates that the Atlantic coast could host offshore wind projects totally 212 GW in shallow waters with high wind speeds. According to NREL, if only a quarter of these potential offshore wind projects moved forward, the Atlantic States would generate $200 billion in new economic activity and create tens of thousands of jobs


But the United States has no offshore wind projects up and running and has only approved one: Cape Wind, which would be sited in federal waters off Massachusetts.  Cape Wind would provide enough carbon-free renewable energy to meet 75% of Cape Cod’s electricity demand. NRDC strongly supports the Cape Wind project.


As our new report notes, rising seas and temperatures caused by heat-trapping pollution are a threat to the economies of the areas around the National Seashores. The seven national seashores draw a total of about 11 million visitors a year,  generating more than half a billion dollars in spending and supporting nearly 8,000 jobs.  Last year saw a record 14 extreme weather events that caused more than $1 billion in damage. The seashores in our study contain islands, dunes, and other shoreline features that are the first line of defense protecting human populations and developments from the often devastating effects of winds and surging flood waters from hurricanes, nor’easters, and other coastal storms.


Another concern is rising temperatures that could discourage summertime visitors.  New climate projections included in the report show, for example, that the late-century summer temperatures at Fire Island NS could average 6.5 degrees higher, as hot as those experienced today in Atlantic Beach, NC, and temperatures at Cumberland Island NS could rise 6.3 degrees, matching the current summer climate in desert-bound White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. (For more general information on the connection between heat-trapping pollution and a changing climate, see most recent American Meteorological Society statement here).


As our report makes clear climate change is damaging, and will continue to damage, some of our most treasured places, America’s Best Idea. We need to tell all our leaders to take actions to cut the pollution that causes it.