Climate Change Issue Profile: Sea Level Rise

Robert Brock
Posted on: 9/21/2018 - Updated on: 2/28/2020

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Sea level rise is a major climate change impact that is already being experienced in parts of the United States, including many marine protected areas (MPAs) along the coast. MPAs can play an important role in addressing the impacts of climate change and building community resilience. As special places with long term protection, many MPAs provide the infrastructure to focus research and monitoring efforts of climate trends, provide protection against non-climate stressors, and effectively engage the community through public education programs, advisory groups, and onsite staff. Familiar examples of MPAs include national parks, national wildlife refuges, national marine sanctuaries, national estuarine research reserves, and state or tribal fish and wildlife areas. While MPAs have legal authority to provide lasting protection and minimize some local disturbances (e.g., fishing, bottom disturbance, vessel discharge, and development), they remain vulnerable to large scale disturbances originating outside their boundaries, particularly those associated with climate change (e.g., sea level rise, warming sea surface temperature, ocean acidification, magnitude and frequency of storms, storm surge).

In areas where there is a high confidence that sea level rise will occur and the impacts will be significant, many MPAs are taking proactive actions in order to lessen future impacts of rising seas and storm surges that reach further inland. Responding to rising seas can take three different approaches: (1) NonIntervention (e.g., letting nature take its course); (2) Persistence (e.g., resisting change through actions); or (3) Directed Transformation (e.g., assessing vulnerability and take appropriate actions where necessary). A combination of actions presented here (persistence and directed transformation) are examples of the types of management actions other MPAs facing similar challenges may wish to consider.