Sea Level Rise Is Associated with a Range of Impacts on Coastal Environments

Coastal areas are among the most densely populated and fastest-growing regions of the United States, as well as the rest of the world. Such population concentration and growth are accompanied by a high degree of development and use of coastal resources for economic purposes, including industrial activities, transportation, trade, resource extraction, fisheries, tourism, and recreation. Sea level rise can potentially affect all of these activities and their accompanying infrastructure, and it could also magnify other climate changes, such as an increase in the frequency or intensity of storms (see below). Even if the frequency or intensity of coastal storms does not change, increases in average sea level will magnify the impacts of extreme events on coastal landscapes.

The economic impacts of climate change and sea level rise on coastal areas in the United States have been an important focus for research. While economic impact assessments have become increasingly sophisticated, they remain incomplete and are subject to the well-recognized challenges of cost-benefit analyses (see Chapter 17). In addition, while studies of economic impacts may be useful at a regional level, general conclusions regarding the total magnitude of economic impacts in the United States cannot be drawn from existing studies; this is because the metrics, modeling approaches, sea level rise projections, inclusions of coastal storms, and assumptions about human responses (e.g., the type and level of protection) vary considerably across the studies.

Coastal ecosystems such as dunes, wetlands, estuaries, seagrass beds, and mangroves provide numerous ecosystem goods and services, ranging from nursery habitat for certain fish and shellfish to habitat for bird, mammal, and reptilian species, including some endangered ones; protective or buffering services for coastal infrastructure against the onslaught of storms; water filtering and flood retention; carbon storage; and the aesthetic, cultural, and economic value of beaches and coastal environments for recreation, tourism, and simple enjoyment. The impact of sea level rise on these and other nonmarket values is often omitted from economic impact assessments of coastal areas because of difficulties in assigning values.

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