On June 23rd 2015, the Department of the Interior released a report revealing that 39% of infrastructure in U.S. national parks is at high risk due to sea-level rise caused by climate change.
To begin addressing this issue scientists from the National Park Service (NPS) and Western Carolina University partnered to begin an assessment of the level of exposure that park owned assets will face during a period of rising sea level. Specific projections of sea level rise vary by location and time but scientists have predicted that due to climate change, sea levels are expected to rise by 1 meter in the next 100 to 150 years. Even a minor increase in sea level will have significant effects on coastal hazards, natural resources and assets within national parks. The study focused on 40 parks located on the east and west coasts as well as the Gulf of Mexico. The parks analyzed in the report represent only about a third of the 118 parks that are threatened by potential sea level rise.
The NPS study states that rising sea levels from climate change pose a serious threat to coastal cities around the world. Based on their study the NPS predicts that a sea level rise puts around 39% of coastal park assets at risk, which has an approximate cumulative value of over $40 billion. Assets were characterized based on their overall exposure to long-term (one meter) sea-level rise and associated storm vulnerability. Therefore, each asset was placed into one of two categories based on exposure or risk: 1) high exposure or 2) limited exposure. These assets include, roads, buildings, monuments, water systems, bridges, and other infrastructure. This report underscores the economic importance of cutting carbon pollution and the importance of making public lands more resilient to coastal hazards.
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said in a statement “This (park) infrastructure is essential to day-to-day park operations, but the historical and cultural resources such as lighthouses, fortifications, and archaeological sites that visitors come to see are also at risk of damage or loss”.
The report also featured a Hurricane Sandy case study that highlighted elevated risk many coastal parks in New York face. Many national parks in the Northeast were severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy. The Statue of Liberty remained closed for eight months following the storm, and flooding forced NPS staff to remove much of the Ellis Island museum collection.
The scientists acknowledged that previous studies did not take into account the potential damage a storm like Superstorm Sandy could have on park assets. The researchers concluded that as national park assets are exposed to sea level rise, they are more at risk to coastal hazards. The analysis resolved that while it is essential to identify NPS assets at risk due to long term sea level rise, it is also necessary to understand the short-term hazards that could impact park assets.
Many historically and culturally significant areas were listed in the high-exposure category of the study. These areas include the Statue of Liberty, Fort McHenry, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and landmark structures at Boston National Historic Park. Popular beach communities such as Cape Cod.), Cape Canaveral, and Padre Island were also listed in the high exposure category. These beaches are popular summer retreats for many Americans and potential damage to park assets could have negative impacts on local economies.
The Department of the Interior is conducting two additional studies that will continue to build upon the analysis presented in this report. The first project is a series of case studies related to climate change vulnerability and adaptation in NPS coastal parks. The project will provide park managers with a collection of adaptation strategies to protect vulnerable coastal assets. The second project is an extension of the Coastal Asset Report and will analyze the exposure of an additional 30 coastal parks to sea level rise.
For more information regarding this study contact Michael May at Michael.May@warwickconsultants.net