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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

We must pay more attention to coastal development and sea level rise

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 27, 2009

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I spend most of my professional time thinking about where development should go, where it shouldn't, and what form it should take.  A lot of my thinking is derived from wanting to reduce transportation impacts from sprawl and also to conserve as much of the rural and resource landscape as possible.  And, like any decent environmentalist, I want development to avoid environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands and erosion-prone slopes except in very limited circumstances.

Courtesy of an article in The Washington Post by Juliet Eilperin, and some time on the web site of The National Wildlife Federation, I got a wake-up call over the weekend with regard to the latter.  NWF has produced some revealing maps showing the effect of sea level rise due to global warming.  Here is the area of Maryland's Eastern Shore around the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.  White indicates dry land, blue indicates open water, and shades of green indicate categories of wetlands, as noted on the legend below:

Blackwater NWR and MD's Eastern Shore (courtesy of National Wildlife Federation)

     (legend courtesy of National Wildlife Federation) 

Now look at the same area in 100 years, after 27 inches of sea level rise:

Blackwater NWR and MD's Eastern Shore in 100 years (courtesy of National Wildlife Federation) 

That is frightening.  I've been to Blackwater and enjoyed it.  You can bike or drive around its quiet roads (see below) and view all sorts of waterfowl and some other critters, too.  But, in a century, there will be no roads. Blackwater NWR (by: Evan Parker, creative commons license) The entire refuge will be underwater, just about, and the villages currently on the peninsula extending south from Blackwater will themselves be either underwater or converted to marsh.  (So, apparently, will be at least some parts of the city of Cambridge.)  Yikes.

Eilperin's article makes clear (as do the maps) that sea level rise poses enormous challenges for conservationists thinking about how to preserve ecological communities when their current boundaries are likely to disappear.  I'm thinking it also needs to affect where and what we build in coastal areas, and we in the smart growth community need to pay more attention.


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Merry RabbJan 27 2009 09:32 AM

Needless to say, the Outer Banks of NC are also at risk given the large amount of land at under 2 feet of elevation. The newspaper reports:
...and the experts comment:

...but it remains to be seen if anything here will actually change.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 27 2009 05:01 PM

Those are very sobering articles. When I was on the Outer Banks last summer, I was astounded at how thoroughly they have been allowed to be developed, especially the northern section.

Ian WilkerJan 28 2009 11:17 PM

Ouch. I know Blackwater well -- had a friend who worked at a U. of MD lab in Cambridge, and (as a rabid birder) used to tool around the refuge birding whenever I'd visit. The beauty of the Eastern Shore in general is its filigreed border between land and sea; I hadn't considered how sea-level rise will just clobber the region.

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