Sea Level Rise and the Coastal Environment

he coastlines of the United States and the world are major centers of economic, social, and cultural development, and coastal areas are home to critical ecologi cal and environmental resources. Climate change poses a number of risks to coastal environments. Foremost among these is sea level rise, which threatens people, ecosystems, and infrastructure directly and also magnifies the impacts of coastal storms. Coastal environments face a variety of other stresses, such as pollution, development pressures, and resource harvesting, that can interact with climate-related changes and potentially increase the vulnerability of coastal areas.

Coastal managers, businesses, governments, and inhabitants are all concerned about current and future risks to coastal areas. In order to develop adequate responses to the risks posed by climate change and sea level rise, they require answers to questions such as the following:

• How much will sea level rise in the future and on what time scales?

• How will sea level rise and changing storm patterns translate into local problems such as erosion, flooding, damage to infrastructure, and loss of ecosystems?

• What coastal protection measures are physically and economically feasible and socially and environmentally acceptable in different locations, and how much time do we have to start implementing these measures?

• At what point is it more cost effective to retreat from the shoreline than to defend coastal land uses in place?

• How uncertain is the information about sea level rise and other coastal (physical, ecological, and socioeconomic) processes, and what are the implications of these uncertainties for decision making?

This chapter summarizes the information that is currently available regarding the history, causes, projections, and consequences of sea level rise and other climate-related changes that affect or may affect coastal environments. It includes updated projections of sea level rise and the impacts of sea level rise and other climate changes on coastal systems, and also discusses scientific knowledge to support responding to sea level rise. The final section of the chapter describes some of the additional scientific information that will be needed to better understand and develop more effective responses to sea level rise and other coastal management challenges.

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