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

Created: 3/29/2010 - Updated: 3/02/2020


The National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) protects more than 1.3 million acres in 27 reserves in 21 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 27 NERRs across the country, bordering the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, 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.

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 work group put together a framework strategy organized around goals outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); these goals include:

  1. To contribute to understanding of climate change science and monitor for ecosystem changes
  2. To assess impacts and vulnerabilities on humans and ecosystems, and reserves’ capacity for adaptation and mitigation
  3. To provide education and training to prepare for climate change


The goals outlined to address climate change 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; this established salt marshes as long-term reference sites at five reserves – Narragansett, Rhode Island; Wells, Maine; Chesapeake Bay, Virginia; North Carolina; South Slough, Oregon – (see associated case studies).

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. The entire reserve system is working to implement this type of workshop (see associated case study).

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, 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/NERRS plans to continue with current efforts and look for other ways 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.


Information gathered from interviews and online resources. Last updated March 2010.


Gregg, R. M. (2010). Integrating Climate Change into the U.S. National Estuarine Research Reserve System [Case study on a project of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated March 2010)

Project Contact(s)

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.


Scale of Project
Community / Local
National / Federal
State / Provincial
Sector Addressed
Conservation / Restoration
Development (socioeconomic)
Education / Outreach
Target Climate Changes and Impacts
Air temperature
Flow patterns
Invasive / non-native species, pests
Sea level rise
Storms or extreme weather events
Water quality
Water supply
Water temperature
Climate Type
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy
Natural Resource Management / Conservation
Incorporate future conditions into natural resources planning and policies
Capacity Building
Conduct / Gather additional research, data, and products
Host adaptation training or planning workshop
Monitor climate change impacts and adaptation efficacy
Taxonomic Focus
Other Invertebrates
Sociopolitical Setting
Effort Stage
In progress

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