Vulnerability of Estuarine Systems in the Contiguous United States to Water Quality Change Under Future Climate and Land-Use

L. R. Montefiore, N. G. Nelson, M. D. Staudinger, A. Terando
Posted on: 10/25/2023 - Updated on: 10/25/2023

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Estuaries provide ecological, economic, and cultural benefits threatened by changes in land-use and land cover (LULC) and climate. One way in which climate and LULC changes threaten estuaries is by altering the quality and quantity of freshwater they receive.

This study developed a framework for identifying estuarine systems at risk of suffering from water quality degradation—specifically through increases in nutrients—due to climate and LULC change. Many factors capturing biological, physical, ecological, and social aspects of estuarine vulnerability to water quality change were analyzed in the framework, which was used to assess the vulnerability of 112 estuarine systems across the contiguous US to future increases in nutrients.

Study findings revealed that the largest increases in future estuarine nutrient loads are expected along the Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico, and the lowest increases are expected along the Pacific and western Gulf of Mexico. However, the North Atlantic and the South Pacific were associated with the greatest access to resources for mitigating ecological degradation (e.g., access to local knowledge, legislative and governmental actions), which could help estuaries in these regions better cope with the effects of LULC and climate on nutrient loads, making them potentially less vulnerable.

Key Points:

  • A framework to assess water quality vulnerability to future land-use and climate change was developed and applied to 112 U.S. estuaries
  • Systems along the Atlantic coast had the highest predicted exposure to nutrient loading change
  • The North Atlantic and South Pacific regions had the highest adaptive capacity, which can help mitigate the effects of nutrient increase

Information and data from this publication is also presented in the interactive app, Estuarine Vulnerability to Water Quality Change Interactive App.


Montefiore, L. R., Nelson, N. G., Staudinger, M. D., & Terando, A. (2023). Vulnerability of estuarine systems in the contiguous United States to water quality change under future climate and land-use. Earth's Future, 11, e2022EF002884.

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