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Final Frontiers: Atlantic Seashores at Risk

Rising sea levels and stronger storms could drown popular beaches

A vulnerable salt marsh at Assateague Island, Maryland. (Photo: National Park Service)

The wide, white beach slopes gently into the Atlantic surf, dotted at long intervals with the upturned shell of an expired horseshoe crab. Terns wheel on their slender wings and shriek over the breakers. On the other side of the shrub-covered dunes, deer graze on the bay bushes. Despite being within an hour’s drive of New York City, Fire Island National Seashore is so pristine, it seems timeless.

It’s hard to believe that it could soon be underwater.

Atlantic seashores from New England to North Carolina are in grave danger from the effects of climate change, according to a new study from the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The damage from warming temperatures is already apparent in visible beach erosion, decreases in wildlife, storm-battered boardwalks and submerged land.

The report, Atlantic National Seashores in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption, examines seven federally protected National Seashores (NS) on the edge: Cape Cod NS in Massachusetts, Fire Island NS in New York, Assateague Island NS in Maryland and Virginia, Cape Hatteras NS and Cape Lookout NS in North Carolina, Cumberland Island NS in Georgia and Canaveral NS in Florida. All feature large tracts with less than one meter’s elevation—the same amount that sea levels could rise within this century as greenhouse gases are trapped within our atmosphere and heat the planet, the study’s authors say. Several shocking maps, revealed for the first time, illustrate the dramatic loss of land from extreme weather.

The effects aren’t confined to the landscape. Endangered sea turtles like the Leatherback depend on sandy Atlantic beaches for nesting, but storms have washed huge stretches away. And that’s not all: temperature controls the sex of the turtles’ young, with higher temps resulting in more females and skewing reproductive rates.

These beaches also happen to be among the most popular with tourists and locals. Cape Cod alone greets more than 4.6 million visitors annually, accounting for $171 million in spending. By 2090, average summer temperatures in Assateague could rise 6.2 degrees, about as hot as a typical July afternoon in Key West, Florida, “which could be enough to keep people from going to these national seashores as much as they now do,” said Stephen Saunders, president of RMCO and the report’s lead author. For these critical ecosystems, global warming will cause an environmental and economic crisis.

“How much these seashores are affected by climate change depends on how much climate change we humans produce,” Saunders noted. “It’s not set how much the climate will change; a whole lot depends on our level of emissions of heat-trapping gases. Most of the worst impacts can at least be reduced, if not avoided entirely, if we get serious now about reducing carbon pollution.”

“Climate change is the greatest threat that has ever faced our national parks,” added Theo Spencer, senior advocate in NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air Program. “If we don’t cut the amount of heat-trapping pollution that we spew into the air, these special places that Americans love will never be the same.”

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