Science for Responding to Sea Level Rise

Scientific understanding of people's vulnerability and ability to adapt to sea level rise (and other impacts of climate change on coastal systems) has increased in recent years. Developing countries are expected to face greater challenges in dealing with the impacts of rising sea levels because of lower adaptive capacity—which is largely a function of economic, technological, and knowledge resources; social capital; and well-functioning institutions. In developed countries like the United States, adaptive capacity may be higher, but this has not been thoroughly examined to date and there are a large number of assets and people at risk. Moreover, significant gaps remain in our empirical understanding of and ability to identify place-based vulnerabilities to the impacts of sea level rise along the U.S. coastline. Considerable challenges also remain in translating whatever adaptive capacity exists into real adaptation actions on the ground.

Virtually all adaptive responses to sea level rise have costs as well as social and ecological consequences, and most are complicated by having effects that extend far into the future and beyond the immediately affected coastal regions. Engineering options such as seawalls and levees are not feasible in all locations, and in many they could have negative effects on coastal ecosystems, beach recreation, tourism, aesthetics, and other socially valued aspects of coastal environments. A wide range of barriers and constraints make "soft" solutions—such as changes in land use planning and, ultimately, retreat from the shoreline—equally challenging. Such constraints and limits on adaptation are increasingly recognized, but little is currently known about how to determine the most appropriate, cost-effective, least ecologically damaging, and most socially acceptable adaptation options for different places and regions. As discussed below and in further detail in Chapter 4, continued and expanded scientific research can help to address these gaps in understanding.

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