Marine and Coastal Systems - Impacts and Adaptation

Victor Kennedy
Hornpoint Environmental Research Laboratory University of Maryland

The preponderance of the earth's population lives on or near the seacoast. This large population threatens the health and survival of coastal and estuarine systems when the seas rise.

Low lying lands close to the oceans would be flooded as the waters rise, creating new estuarine areas, but human interference will largely mitigate this and the salt marshes will tend to disappear.

Sea level will rise due to the thermal expansion of the water and partly from melted glaciers. This threatens many areas of the world, especially Bangladesh, Egypt, the Netherlands, and some island countries. Salt marshes, which contribute greatly to biological productivity, will be depleted.

Warming of ocean and coastal waters will affect many natural systems. As waters warm, many species will be able to adapt or migrate to cooler areas but sessile organisms may succumb where rapid warming occurs. Already some coral reef organisms are showing mortality from El Niño effects and some bivalves in local areas are becoming extinct. However, human intervention (over- fishing, pollution, etc.) may be more important in species extinction than climate change alone. We must conclude that changing temperatures will influence patterns of distribution and abundance of marine life. This will affect fisheries.

Increased rainfall will dilute the saline environment in some coastal areas with deleterious affects on biological systems. Lower levels of local rainfall may also result in salt intrusion into water bodies which are presently widely used for municipal water supplies. Also, increased frequency and severity of storms would seriously affect coaster cities and low-lying islands.

It is difficult to predict the direction and scale of climate changes in regional and global areas. Some predictions are fairly certain but lack of data and the complexity of natural systems reduce prediction to "informed speculation." It seems prudent to scale back greenhouse gasses, to practice sustainable ecological and economic resource use, and to develop the data needed to mitigate challenges to the coastal zone.

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