Integrating Climate Change into the U.S. National Estuarine Research Reserve System

Rachel M. Gregg
Posted on: 3/29/2010 - Updated on: 10/28/2021

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Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) protects more than 1.3 million acres in 29 reserves in 23 states and Puerto Rico. NERRs across the country are working to integrate climate change into their activities by increasing monitoring of climate change at reserve sites, assessing impacts and vulnerabilities, and providing education and training to the public and policy makers.


There are 29 NERRs across the country along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, Pacific, and Gulf of Alaska. These reserves act as venues for research and education of the public and policy makers, and also as indicators of climate change. Estuaries are particularly susceptible to sea level rise, increased air and water temperatures, changes in storm frequency and intensity, erosion, changes in water supply and quality, flooding and flow patterns, and range shifts of native, non-native, and invasive species. A 2013 national climate sensitivity analysis found that the least ecologically resilient NERRs are Tijuana River, San Francisco Bay, Waquoit Bay, Elkhorn Slough, Old Woman Creek, and Weeks Bay, while the most ecologically resilient sites are Guana Tolomato Matanzas, Sapelo Island, and North Inlet-Winyah Bay. Sea level rise and temperature changes ranked highly among drivers of climate sensitivity across all reserves.

The National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA) was created to support the NERRS network. The NERRA/NERRS partnership has developed a strategy to incorporate climate change into reserve activities. In 2007, a small working group put together a framework organized around goals outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); these goals included:

  1. Contributing to understanding of climate change science and monitor for ecosystem changes;
  2. Assessing impacts and vulnerabilities on humans and ecosystems, and reserves’ capacity for adaptation and mitigation; and
  3. Providing education and training to prepare for and respond to climate change

These goals were incorporated into the existing NERR programmatic framework.


Contribute to understanding of climate change science and monitor for ecosystem changes.
NERRs act as a full network of sentinel sites. All reserves participate in the System Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP), established in 1995. As part of this program, reserves monitor biotic and abiotic indicators and map watersheds, habitats, and land use patterns. This is an intensive monitoring program that uses standardized uniform protocols and can provide a baseline to understand how climate change affects estuarine ecosystems.

One directed climate change monitoring effort was created in 2007, establishing salt marshes as long-term reference sites at five reserves—Narragansett, Rhode Island; Wells, Maine; Chesapeake Bay, Virginia; North Carolina; South Slough, Oregon—to compare marsh restoration success (see associated case studies). The project was funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to 1) use natural marshes as references to understand what is happening at restored marshes, and 2) use these natural reference sites to understand how marshes across the United States are responding to the impacts of climate change. The project required the reserves to conduct effectiveness monitoring of 17 Estuary Restoration Act-funded projects at paired restoration and reference sites. The study used a restoration performance index (RPI) to compare different salt marsh characteristics (e.g., salinity, vegetation cover, flow patterns, peat soils) at natural marsh reference sites and recently restored marsh sites over a two-year period (2008­–2010) to track water levels and marsh height in order to determine if and how salt marshes can respond to environmental changes, including sea level rise. The study determined that the restoration of hydrologic processes across the five NERRs were quite high while biological processes (e.g., species density, vegetation composition) varied as coastal marsh plant community development may lag in recovery (see Evaluating Tidal Wetland Restoration Performance Using National Estuarine Research Reserve System Reference Sites and the Restoration Performance Index.

Assess impacts and vulnerabilities on humans and ecosystems, and reserves’ capacity for adaptation and mitigation.
The NERR Coastal Training Program is a true adaptation tool. One major project of the program is the Preparing for Climate Change workshop piloted in Washington State in 2009. This workshop targeted shoreline planners and resource managers, and provided participants with the knowledge and opportunity to assess local needs and vulnerabilities, and has been replicated in other reserves. Another example is the Alaska Fisheries Resilience Index, a self-assessment tool developed by the Kachemak Bay NERR, Alaska Sea Grant, and the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. The Index allows users to assess the preparedness and recovery potential of business operations and was beta tested during a workshop with reserve stakeholders.

Provide education and training to prepare for climate change.
The NERRS provides education and training related to climate change impacts on human and estuarine systems in order to increase public awareness and foster behavior change. Reserves are working to infuse climate change into some activities already underway. For example, EstuaryLive is a free, interactive program that provides K-12 students and teachers with detailed insight into estuarine and coastal systems, is integrating climate change into its curriculum.

Outcomes and Conclusions

NERRA and NERRS continue to incorporate climate change into their work. In addition, there are efforts to coordinate with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuges, National Marine Sanctuaries, and National Parks to maximize networking opportunities and information exchange on climate change adaptation. NERRS tracks its climate-related projects in a searchable online catalog.


Gregg, R. M. (2020). Integrating Climate Change into the U.S. National Estuarine Research Reserve System [Case study on a project of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt’s State of Adaptation Program. (Last updated May 2020)

Project Contacts

Affiliated Organizations

NOAA is an agency that enriches life through science. Our reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as we work to keep citizens informed of the changing environment around them. From daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings and climate monitoring to fisheries management, coastal restoration and supporting marine commerce, NOAA’s products and services support economic vitality and affect more than one-third of America’s gross domestic product.

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