Coastal communities and climate change: Which are most sensitive?

(Reposted from UWEX) A new study of the nation’s coastal areas and surrounding communities examines the potential risks that these areas would face from a changing climate.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Extension, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collaborated on a project funded by the NOAA Climate Program Office. The research examined the 28 Natural Estuarine Research Reserves located in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Wisconsin is home to the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) in Douglas County. The aim of the research was to gauge coastal areas’ biological and social sensitivity to potential climate change effects, such as temperature changes and rise in sea levels.

The information examines the sensitivity of important natural resources and coastal communities to possible climate change effects. It also serves as a foundation for local climate planning. The report is available online at

“This study improves our understanding of factors that can make coastal communities vulnerable to climate variability,” said Patrick Robinson, co-director of the University of Wisconsin Environmental Resources Center and environmental studies specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. “We can work on addressing areas of need and potentially reduce the societal impacts of any hazards that may occur as a result of climate variability.”

Estuaries, where rivers meet the sea or the Great Lakes, provide many social benefits, including jobs related to transportation, tourism, food and recreation. In addition, estuaries support nursery habitat for fish and shellfish while buffering coastal communities from the impacts of storms and rising sea levels.

The team of investigators from the University of Wisconsin-Extension and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that the Lake Superior NERR had relatively high social sensitivity, according to Robinson.

Social sensitivity was highest in areas with high employment in industries dependent on natural resources, lower-income households, lower levels of education and higher minority populations. “Drivers of social sensitivity for the Lake Superior reserve were most similar to several West Coast reserves,” said Robinson.

The new study is unique because it provides information that allowed investigators to compare both social sensitivity and biophysical sensitivity (how water quality is affected by temperature and rainfall changes) around the country.

“This report is national in scope, but it is intended to provide a foundation for future work at the local level,” said Robinson. “All of the 28 NERRs appear sensitive to potential climate change effects in some way, but not all in the same way.”

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a network of 28 reserves around the U.S. representing diverse coastal ecosystems. Established under the Coastal Zone Management Act, the reserves are managed through a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the coastal states and territories for long-term research, ecosystems monitoring, education, and coastal stewardship. Through integrated research and education, the reserves help communities develop strategies to deal successfully with coastal resource management issues such as water pollution, habitat restoration and climate change.

by Meg Gores,