What are the primary challenges and strategies to mitigate impacts of current and future social and environmental change to coastal waters, ecosystems and resources on the East Coast of North America?  Coastal waters are defined as the freshwaters on the coastal plain (including groundwater) and brackish and saline waters in coastal creeks, wetlands and estuaries.

Background: The East Coast of North America includes densely populated and heavily armored cities and beach development, lightly developed or undeveloped coastal ecosystems including valuable wetlands, and intensively managed row crop agriculture and CAFOs.  The area is also home to major national assets, including important military bases, ports, industrial and energy infrastructure, and critical fisheries.  At the interface between fresh and salt water, the water resources, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are particularly vulnerable in this area.  Sewage, sediments, stormwater and fertilizer runoff from urban and agricultural land use have degraded many East Coast estuaries. Sea level rise and an increase in the intensity of both droughts and floods are altering the hydrographs and the hydrologic connections between land and sea throughout the coastal plain.  Extensive ditching and drainage of wetlands for agriculture and settlement over centuries has altered the circulation and mixing of fresh and salt water, increasing salinization of freshwater ecosystems and reducing the resilience of these ecosystems to drought, flood and coastal surge. Port deepening and groundwater extraction for drinking water and irrigation increases the potential for saline intrusion. Salinization of soils, surface and groundwater will have significant and potentially irreversible impacts on coastal land use, coastal communities and coastal lifestyles.

The working group will explore likely futures, and potential management strategies for US Coastal Waters, considering climate, land use and socioeconomic change impacts.  We will:

  1. Write a white paper that lays out key science and social science questions that must be answered in order to intelligently manage coastal waters over the next century. The paper will be framed around several alternative scenarios including a Business as Usual option. Unique features of this effort will include:
  • Explicit recognition of the connection between coastal freshwaters and coastal waters
  • Explicit recognition of the important role of water resource management in determining the pace of coastal salinization
  • An emphasis on Coastal Salinization (Sea Level Rise + Salt Water Intrusion) as a dynamic and heterogeneous transition rather than a gradual change (Sea Level Rise)
  1. Explore the extent of the eastern coastal plain that is vulnerable to salinization. This will expand upon existing sea level rise vulnerability maps to map the likely extent of saltwater intrusion vulnerability for the eastern coastal plain of the US.
  2. Explore the consequences of coastal salinization and what adaptive management strategies can best minimize or mitigate undesirable impacts. We will coordinate a workshop to bring together researchers from existing coastal research groups from Maine to Florida to develop a shared set of priority monitoring and experimental measurements

Project Team

Xi Yang
Assistant Professor
University of Virginia
Photo of Emily Bernhardt
James B. Duke Distinguished Professor
Duke University
Coast, beach and land aerial view

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