There are over 150 national wildlife refuges located in coastal areas, yet the Refuge System has not adequately incorporated projections of sea level rise or other climate impacts into land acquisition planning. Thus, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may not be maximizing the effectiveness of its conservation investments if it is making fee-title acquisitions or purchasing long-term easements on lands that are going to be underwater within a few decades.
To get a better picture of the situation, we used the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) to assess the threat to the lands within both the acquired and approved boundaries of eight coastal refuges that have been assigned a high funding priority for land acquisitions in the coming year.
We found that sea-level rise impact will not be felt equally among coastal refuges. Great White Heron NWR, in the Florida Keys, is the highest ranked refuge for land protection funding for FY 2013 by the Fish and Wildlife Service, yet it is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. Two of the refuges we assessed, Great White Heron and Blackwater, face potential net loss of over 40% of refuge lands by 2075, if sea level rises by one meter over the course of the century. On the other hand, four of the refuges have less than 5% of their land area vulnerable. Some refuges, like Blackwater, will face inundation but have newly created wetlands nearby, where the refuge could potentially expand to. Others, like Laguna Atascosa NWR, will face wetlands loss that will not be readily replaced with new areas of marsh. And refuges whose land area consists mainly of low-lying islands, like in the Florida Keys, may run out of land entirely.
The Fish and Wildlife Service urgently needs to better understand and incorporate climate change and sea level rise implications into its land acquisition planning to avoid investments that will ultimately be literally under water.
Our summary report with policy recommendations is available here.
The complete report is available here.