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The Northern Gulf of Mexico Coast: Human Development Patterns, Declining Ecosystems and Escalating Vulnerability to Storms and Sea Level Rise

Virginia Burkett

The northern Gulf of Mexico coastal zone has some of the highest rates of coastal erosion and wetland loss in the world. The Gulf Coast region also ranks highest in the number of US billion dollar weather-related disasters and flood insurance claims. The high vulnerability of this low-lying coastal zone to land loss and flooding is generally attributed to the combined effects of human development activity, sea level rise, hurricanes and other tropical storms, and a natural physical setting that is sensitive to subtle changes in the balance of marine, coastal and onshore processes. Human-induced climate change has the potential to greatly enhance this vulnerability by increasing the intensity of tropical storms, altering precipitation and runoff, and accelerating sea level rise. The threshold-type responses that have been observed in some Gulf Coast systems suggest that changes in climatic variables could have rapid, widespread impacts during coming decades. Retreat of the coastal shoreline and inundation of adjacent lowlands, coupled with losses of life and property during recent hurricanes, have also stimulated public concerns about the sustainability of some Gulf Coast ecosystems and the human communities that depend upon them, as the climate warms.

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