How will future sea level rise affect sea turtle, shorebird, seabird, and beach mouse nesting habitats within the South Atlantic Bight?
Sea level rise (SLR) and disturbances from increased storm activity are expected to diminish coastal habitats available for sea turtle, seabird, shorebird, and beach mouse nesting by removing habitat as well as inundating nests during critical incubation periods. The goal of our research was to evaluate past nesting patterns of fourteen coastal nesting species and predict future effects of sea level rise on nesting beaches along the South Atlantic Bight (North Carolina to central Florida). We updated the 2000 USGS national assessment of coastal vulnerability to sea-level rise with the 2012 National Research Council interpretation of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report projections along with more recent research. We used this estimate of eustatic sea-level rise (28.0 ±3.2 cm by the 2050s, and 82.7±10.6 cm by the end of this century) to update estimates of coastal vulnerability to sea level rise along the South Atlantic Bight. We integrated a model of future SLR along with long term survey data for three species of sea turtle, three species of shorebird, five species of seabird, and two beach mouse species to maps of coastal vulnerability to SLR in order to predict vulnerability to nesting habitat loss.
Within our study region, 71% of seabird nesting habitat will increase in vulnerability to sea level rise by 2050, as compared to current vulnerability to SLR. For example, fifty percent of the beach habitat supporting high densities of the black skimmer (Rynchops niger), a species of special concern in two states of our study region, will significantly increase in vulnerability to sea level rise by 2050. 77% of all sea turtle nesting habitat across the South Atlantic Bight will experience increased vulnerability to flooding and inundation due to sea level rise by 2050. By 2050, eighty percent of beaches with high nesting densities of the threatened species Caretta caretta, loggerhead sea turtle, will have higher probability of coastal flooding and inundation due to sea level rise. Maps of coastal vulnerability to SLR combined with historical data sets of long-term and spatially extensive nesting habitat will lead to models that enhance our understanding of the complex environmental changes occurring from global climate change and their effects on globally imperiled species.