Coastal Issues | Climate Change | Case Studies

Climate Change: Case Studies

Below are some examples of projects OCRM has either supported directly or through our partners to help coastal and ocean managers address the causes and impacts of climate change.

Maryland Governor's Commission on Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Inundation Modeling

On April 20, 2007, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed an Executive Order establishing a Commission on Climate Change to advise the Governor and Maryland’s General Assembly on matters related to climate change. The Executive Order charged the Commission with developing a Plan of Action to address both the drivers and consequences of climate change, particularly those associated with sea level rise and coastal hazards. Three working groups, comprised of a broad set of stakeholders and representatives of all levels of government, worked together to develop the Plan of Action. The Scientific and Technical Working Group developed a Comprehensive Climate Change Impact Assessment, and the Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Mitigation Working Group developed a Comprehensive Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Footprint Reduction Strategy. Finally, the Adaptation and Response Working Group developed a Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change. The Plan, including recommendations and draft legislation, was presented to the Governor and General Assembly in August 2008. Staff from Maryland’s Coastal Program, partially funded by OCRM, played a key role in developing the Executive Order and is chairing and staffing the Adaptation and Response Working Group.

Inundation Model for Worchester County, Maryland

Inundation models of a portion of Worcester County, MD under different sea level rise scenarios: (top) current conditions; (bottom) at 2100 based on an accelerated rate of sea level rise.

In addition to the Governor’s Commission, the Maryland Coastal Program and local partners acquired high resolution topographic LIDAR data for the majority of the State’s coastal counties. This data is now being used to develop models that demonstrate both the impact of gradual sea level rise inundation over time, as well as impacts associated with increased storm surge from episodic flood events. Sea level rise modeling has been completed for Worcester and Dorchester Counties, as well as pilot areas in Anne Arundel and St. Mary’s Counties. The models are already proving useful to state and county planners and emergency responders as they plan for a coastal region faced with a high likelihood of damaging coastal storms and rising sea level. The project partners are exploring ways to integrate the models into future research efforts and land-use decision-making. Sea level inundation maps are integrated into Maryland’s online interactive shoreline mapping program. OCRM provided funding for these mapping and modeling efforts.


San Francisco Bay Plans for Climate Change

Historical records show that sea level in San Francisco Bay has risen seven inches over the past 150 years, and it is predicted to rise an additional 9.4 to 18.9 inches by the end of the 21st century. Models indicate that an 11.8 inch rise in sea level would shift the 100-year storm surge-induced flood event to once every 10 years. With each flood event, the Bay Area stands to lose valuable real estate, critical public infrastructure, and natural resources.

Impact of Sea Level Rise in San Francisco Bay

Projected impacts of 1 meter sea level rise on south San Francisco Bay

To better prepare for climate change and sea level rise, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) is conducting a climate change planning project with three main goals: identify the impacts of climate change on San Francisco Bay; update the pertinent San Francisco Bay Plan findings and policies pertaining to global climate change effects on San Francisco Bay; and organize and participate in a regional program to address climate change in the Bay Area. As part of the study, BCDC is mapping San Francisco Bay shoreline areas that are vulnerable to sea level rise and increased storm frequency and intensity.

To increase planning for sea level rise, BCDC, with support from OCRM, is holding a design competition for innovative strategies to help Bay area communities become resilient to sea level rise and other coastal hazards and to preserve and enhance coastal resources.

Through its work on the Bay-related impacts of climate change, BCDC also has partnered with the Joint Policy Committee (JPC), which includes the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The JPC has developed a climate change strategy to move the region forward in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise.

BCDC also has partnered with the State of California Climate Action Team to assist in developing scenarios for the 2008 Climate Action Team Report to Governor Schwarzenegger and to ensure that the scope includes research on sea level rise in San Francisco Bay. In its role as a California State Coastal Management Agency, BCDC is working with the California Ocean Protection Council and State Coastal Conservancy to incorporate climate change analyses into shoreline management projects and to help identify additional research needs.


Rhode Island Develops New Regulations for Sea Level Rise

Sea level rise is a concern for coastal communities in Rhode Island. State experts have agreed that for planning purposes Rhode Island should expect a minimum rise of 3-5 feet by 2100. To take action, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) adopted new regulations to address sea level rise.

The regulations are a first for the state and authorize the CRMC to develop and adopt policies and regulations needed to manage the state’s coastal resources and property and protect life and property from hazards resulting from projected sea level rise. Under the regulations, the Council is authorized to work with the State Building Commissioner to incorporate freeboard calculations based on projected sea level rise into new development guidelines, to help ensure buildings are raised above anticipated flood levels.

The regulations also explain scientific findings on sea level rise and provide historic supporting data. For example, they note, sea level rise will lead to increased coastal flooding and erosion, damaging infrastructure and property. It will also result in drinking water contamination from salt intruding into aquifers and compromised wastewater treatment facilities. A higher sea level will displace coastal populations and ultimately lead to the loss of recreation areas, public space, and coastal wetlands.

Rhode Island Sea Grant and the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center (CRC) helped the CRMC synthesize the science behind the proposed regulations and formulate policy options. As part of this synthesis effort, OCRM collaborated with Sea Grant and the CRC to develop the Summary of Coastal Program Initiatives that Address Sea Level Rise as a Result of Global Climate Change. (See OCRM Activities.) OCRM also helped fund CRMC staff that worked on the sea level rise regulations.


Coral Program Climate Change Workshops for Reef Managers

Bleaching Workshop

Bleaching workshops combine classroom discussions with hands-on field work. Credit: NOAA Coral Reef Watch

Shallow coral reefs provide critical habitat and nursery grounds for marine fisheries, serve as important tourist attractions, and protect coastlines from severe storms and wave activity. Many shallow water corals are living close to their maximum temperature range. An increase in sea surface temperature, which could result from climate change, would place these shallow reefs under greater stress. Elevated water temperatures and other stressors can cause coral to “bleach” by expelling the pigmented symbiotic microalgae living in their tissues, making coral more susceptible to disease and death.

Coral Bleaching and Recovery

The bleaching workshops discuss reef resilience in terms of coral's ability to recover from bleaching events, like the coral head pictured above. Credit: Andy Bruckner, NOAA Fisheries

The Coral Reef Conservation Program partners with other NOAA offices, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, the World Bank Global Environmental Facility, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Mote Marine Laboratory, and others to host climate change workshops to increase help coral reef managers to anticipate and respond to coral bleaching events. Using NOAA Coral Reef Watch products and A Reef Manager’s Guide to Coral Bleaching, these workshops provide reef managers with tools they need to understand coral bleaching, know when bleaching is likely to occur, respond to bleaching events, and take actions to improve the long-term resilience of their coral reef resources. The workshops also cover resilience in MPA design, monitoring, communications, and socioeconomic monitoring and social ecological resilience.

More than 150 coral reef experts and managers have been trained, and additional workshops are planned for other U.S. reef jurisdictions. Workshop participants are able to apply what they learned to their local reefs in U.S. states or territories, as well as in 20 nations around the world. For example, the workshops inspired Hawai`i to write its own bleaching response plan. As part of follow-up with former participants, Coral Reef Watch documents activities that result from their participation in these workshops.  


2005 Caribbean Coral Bleaching Event Response

A major coral bleaching event in the Caribbean in 2005 resulted in significant coral death in much of the region and mobilized reef managers to develop a plan to respond to bleaching events. The NOAA Coral Reef Watch, part of the Coral Reef Conservation Program, first alerted managers and scientists about possible bleaching conditions in the Florida Keys in August 2005 via its satellite bleaching alert system. Coral Reef Watch issued warnings for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (USVI) in October 2005. The early warnings enabled scientists and resource managers in the region to allocate large amounts of their limited financial and logistic resources to monitor this record-breaking event. Researchers throughout the Caribbean submitted on-the-ground reports of bleaching, supporting the Reef Watch’s alerts.

Unusually warm water likely caused the bleaching event. Degree Heating Week (DHW) values --indicators of thermal stress coral reefs experience over a 12-week period –- were over 15 at some locations. Significant bleaching is expected at a value of four DHW, and widespread bleaching and mortality are expected at eight DHW.

2005 Caribbean DHW composite

NOAA Coral Reef Watch Degree Heating Weeks (DHW) thermal stress accumulations for 12 weeks composite of maximum values for 2005. Each DHW represents one week of temperatures 1 degree Celsius above the maximum highest monthly average. Credit: NOAA Coral Reef Watch

The event spurred the US Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF) to pass a resolution at its November 2005 meeting to mobilize efforts across the Caribbean to monitor and assess short- and long-term impacts of the 2005 warming and bleaching event. The USCRTF Bleaching Committee coordinated NOAA, NASA, the Department of Interior and other federal, non-governmental, and local groups to mount a united three-phase response that included an initial response, near-term reporting and assessment, and long-term monitoring.

As part of the near-term response, the Coral Conservation Program led an international collaborative effort to fully document the extent of the 2005 event. More than 100 reef managers and scientists representing more than 20 nations provided data. The study found that severe bleaching occurred throughout the eastern Caribbean. More than 25 percent of the coral died in some locations. These data were used in Status of Caribbean Coral Reefs After Bleaching and Hurricanes in 2005, a book that documents the event, and has information to help coral managers arrest coral reef decline in the region. 

bleached Caribbean coral

Bleaching was documented in St. Croix by NOAA divers. Credit: CCMA Biogeography Team

While there is still much to learn about bleaching events, their triggers and long-term impacts, the alert system and coordinated response to the 2005 event helped further understanding of coral bleaching and prepare reef managers for bleaching events. The data generated during the response will be vital to management in the Caribbean. The Coral Conservation Program will continue to be involved in coordinating this data.


National Estuarine Research Reserves Address IPCC Goals

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) is addressing the climate change issue by systematically matching existing capabilities, programs and activities with the three goals identified by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The 27 reserves around the country have identified several major impacts to reserve ecosystems including change in sea-level, salt marsh extent and community structure, range extension of invasive species, storm frequency and severity, shoreline erosion and migration, hydrology, and water quantity and quality changes. Some examples include:

The St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve within the Apalachicola Bay Reserve in Florida is part of a study by Dr. Bill Platt from Louisiana State University and Dr. Loretta Bataglia, University of Illinois, that is examining habitat effects of climate change/rising sea levels and the interaction of hurricanes, fire and climate change on habitats and species along the Gulf Coast.  This work is taking place at Apalachicola and Weeks Bay Reserves.  The project is supported by an Earthwatch grant with additional support hopeful from The National Science Foundation.

Waquoit Bay Reserve in Massachusetts is showing area residents why and how to reduce fossil fuel use, with a community education course, Green Home: Focus on Energy, a series of talks by experts who give practical advice. The reserve has continued the introductory course for homeowners since 2000, targeting training to specific audiences such as plumbers, architects, and home builders. Lack of training for these professions was identified as a barrier to community members implementing energy efficient practices and installing renewable energy on their homes. The reserve partners with respective professional organizations as well as other Cape and Islands Renewable Energy Collaborative members to hold the workshops.


Reducing Erosion Along the Hudson River Estuary

As sea levels continue to rise, property owners along New York’s Hudson River will build more structures to protect their property from rising water and other impacts of climate change. What will be the economic and environmental costs if they use traditional shoreline hardening techniques, such as bulkheads? Would approaches that involve natural vegetation or land management do a better job of protecting property and the environment without breaking the bank? Communities around the country need this kind of information to make decisions and create policies that protect people, property, and the environment.

With support from OCRM’s Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology (CICEET), the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve is leading a multidisciplinary, collaborative project that combines research, analysis, and outreach to better understand the tradeoffs associated with using erosion prevention measures to protect sheltered coastlines from the impacts of rising sea levels, increased storm surges, and waves. Integrated with regional climate change response and ecosystem protection initiatives, the project is comparing six shoreline types along a 300-mile stretch of the northern Hudson River Estuary. Investigators are looking at the long-term economic and ecological costs and impacts associated with different methods of shoreline protection.

The Hudson River project draws on the experience of representatives of local, state, and federal agencies, coastal property owners, academic institutions, and nonprofits focused on climate change and sea level rise. The team is working with key shoreline protection decision makers to develop an information campaign to deliver the results of this research to state and local planners and property owners, starting in 2011.