Critical thresholds and ecosystem services for coastal ecological and human climate adaptation

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Andrew Milliken, Megan Tyrell
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A large portion of the U.S. population lives in coastal areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and the Caribbean; however, our coasts are also home to many fish, wildlife, and plant species that are important for recreation, tourism, local economies, biodiversity, and healthy coastal ecosystems. Coastal habitats also provide protective ecosystem services to human communities, which are increasingly at risk to storms and sea level rise under future climate change. Understanding how climate change will impact natural and human communities is a crucial part of decision making and management related to the protection of our coasts.

In an ongoing collaborative project between the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NA LCC) and the Northeast Climate Science Center, researchers have been compiling existing threshold information on priority coastal fish, wildlife, and plant species as well as coastal habitats along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and Caribbean in response to sea level rise and storm projections. As the effects of climate change on ecological and human communities grow, the possibility of crossing tipping points or thresholds of viability increases the potential for rapid and possibly irreversible changes in ecosystems. Therefore, understanding thresholds related to climate change is critical for facilitating conservation and management actions, which could help to prevent more costly and possibly catastrophic effects in the near (years to decades) and distant (decades to centuries) future. The compilation of this information will help to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how natural systems will respond to climate change and how land and resource management decisions could potentially help these species.  

In addition, a Coastal Resilience Resource List provides an inventory of the work being undertaken by LCCs, CSCs, and partner organizations to address coastal resilience issues in the Atlantic, Gulf, and Caribbean regions as a one-stop shopping list to support a growing coastal resilience network. The list includes completed, ongoing, and planned projects, reports, guidelines, programs, online support tools, and papers.

Ongoing work as part of this project will further synthesize thresholds related to other climate driven stressors in addition to sea level rise and storms for priority species. It will compile natural and nature-based approaches to restoration and management that benefit both natural and human communities in the coastal zone, as well as synthesize information on the suite of ecosystem services provided by tidal marshes, beaches and barrier islands, mangroves, and shellfish beds.  This work will inform climate change adaptation and resilience planning and assist coastal communities that must weigh important tradeoffs regarding the benefits and drawbacks of green and grey coastal infrastructure. .

Results from these synthesis activities will be presented in several formats, including easily accessible topic-specific web pages in the online Massachusetts Wildlife Climate Action Tool.

  • Emily Powell presented this work at the NE CSC Fellows meeting on April 19th, 2017.
  • Emily Powell gave a presentation at the conference 'A Community of Ecosystem Services' (ACES) on Dec. 8th, 2016;
  • Michelle Staudinger highlighted this project and forthcoming products in a presentaiton to NEAFWA SWAP coordinators and in a document synthesizing NE CSC coastal projects which has been circulated to the LCCs and other partners.