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Climate Change Adaptation for Coastal National Wildlife Refuges

A Southeast CSC Directed Funding 2015 Project
Principal Investigator
Mitchell Eaton


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National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) along the East Coast of the United States protect habitat for a host of wildlife species, while also offering storm surge protection, improving water quality, supporting nurseries for commercially important fish and shellfish, and providing recreation opportunities for coastal communities. Yet in the last century, coastal ecosystems in the eastern U.S. have been severely altered by human development activities as well as sea-level rise and more frequent extreme events related to climate change. These influences threaten the ability of NWRs to protect our nation’s natural resources and to sustain their many beneficial services. Through this project, researchers are collaborating with managers of the [...]

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“Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge - Credit: Alan Cressler”
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“Savannah River National Wildlife Refuge - Credit: Alan Cressler”
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“St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge - Credit: Alan Cressler”
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“St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge - Credit: Alan Cressler”
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Coastal ecosystems in the eastern U.S. have been severely altered by processes associated with human development, sea-level rise and the increased frequency of extreme events related to climate change. These influences are degrading the capacity of both ecological and human social systems to remain resilient in the face of global change. National Wildlife Refuges along the east coast protect critical habitat and ecosystems for a host of wildlife species, but also contribute to essential goods and services that benefit coastal communities, businesses and individuals. Storm-surge protection, increased water quality, nurseries for commercially important fin and shellfish, and recreational opportunities are only some of the benefits to society contributed by coastal wildlife refuges. Faced with sea-level rise and climate change, the role of coastal refuges to protect our nation’s natural resources and provide ecosystem services is in jeopardy. The U.S. Geological Survey is proposing a management-research collaboration with coastal refuges to assist in planning for and adapting to sea-level rise and other global change processes. This collaboration will integrate the expertise of specialists in global-change science, coastal dynamics, resource economics and decision science to address management policies that will benefit both human and wildlife interests into the future.

Project Extension

typeTechnical Summary
valueWe propose a management-research collaboration with select National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) on the southeast Atlantic coast to develop a decision framework for improving effective, long-term decision making by Refuge managers and their partners confronted with the complexities of rapid global change. Coastal NWRs have an especially important role to play in helping socio-ecological systems adapt to sea-level rise and climate change that are being exacerbated by human modifications of coastal systems. Due to the complex nature of these issues and the potential ecological and socio-economic impacts of public-land decisions, it is imperative that scarce conservation resources be used as efficiently as possible as refuges struggle to accomplish their mission. Without identifying additional management options, however, global change processes may constrain the ability of refuges, in their existing configuration, to meet this mission. Careful resource planning and allocation decisions in the next several years, made collaboratively with partners having both overlapping and possibly competing interests, may provide coastal refuges a unique opportunity to contribute to a broader societal adaptation to global change processes. We have begun working with NWR personnel from four Atlantic coastal refuges to elicit management concerns regarding near- and long-term resource issues, identify key partners without whom adaptation policies are likely to fail, and characterize broad classes of adaptation strategies available for consideration. To help NWRs develop strategies to address natural resource management in the face of dynamic system change, we will apply methods and tools from decision science. This approach includes integrating management objectives, potential management actions, and relevant system models to predict the outcomes of actions on the system and identify optimal decisions with respect to the objectives. If required, a monitoring program is tailored to keep track of the state of the system and evaluate progress. Although the uncertainties of predicting outcomes from non-stationary processes poses a significant challenge, we will select models that meet a reasonable tradeoff between development cost and degree of realism. The focus of these models will be on providing output for optimizing budget allocations to manage existing refuge resources and for designing an optimal expansion plan to maximize the long-term viability and benefits of a future refuge. In addition to collaborating closely with NWR staff, we will work with resource economists and other social scientists to identify relevant stakeholders, quantify objectives and value the provision of ecosystem goods and services under current and future refuge designs. We will also engage with experts in coastal systems dynamics, risk hazard analysts and other specialists to predict changes to the biophysical processes of coastal resources. Results, including predictive model outputs, interpretation and synthesis related to management objectives, GIS and model code script will be produced in a format to maximize the application of a decision framework and recommendations to the intended users.

Budget Extension

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Additional Information


Type Scheme Key
RegistrationUUID NCCWSC 5ce0f3a5-92fa-4434-b4be-64fbce527b8d
StampID NCCWSC SE15-EM0494

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