Climate: National Parks face huge sea level threats

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Can the National Park Service protect coastal assets from rising sea levels? Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

Study says $40 billion in park assets at risk

Staff Report

FRISCO — Researchers are only a third of the way through their efforts to catalog how rising sea level threatens national parks, but they’ve already documented risks to more than $40 billion worth of park assets.

“Many coastal parks already deal with threats from sea level rise and from storms that damage roads, bridges, docks, water systems and parking lots,” National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in a prepared statement. “This 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 threats are outlined in a new report compiled by scientists with the park service and Western Carolina University. So far, the study has looked at 40 parks, including Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, two of the most visited parks in the system. Results from analysis of an additional 30 coastal parks will be released later this summer.

“Climate change is visible at national parks across the country, but this report underscores the economic importance of cutting carbon pollution and making public lands more resilient to its dangerous impacts,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Low-lying barrier island parks in the NPS Southeast Region constitute the majority of the high exposure category. At Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, the current replacement value of rebuilding lighthouses, visitor center exhibits, historic structures and other areas — all of which are rated as high-exposure assets — would be almost $1.2 billion. That value does not include billions for loss of lands and tourist income.

More than one-third of assets in the Northeast Region are in the high-exposure category. From the Statue of Liberty in New York to the landmark structures at Boston National Historic Park and Fort McHenry in Baltimore, many of these areas have great historical and cultural significance.

Specific projections of sea level rise vary by site and time, but scientists expect a one meter rise in sea level to occur in the next 100-150 years. In some select areas of Alaska, relative sea level is decreasing because as land-based glaciers and ice sheets melt, land mass is actually rising faster than sea levels. Both phenomena make changes in sea-level a useful standard to assess vulnerability across the diversity of coastal area national parks.

As the summer vacation season begins, the 10 NPS national seashores listed as at-risk on this list are popular natural beach retreats for Americans—Assateague (Md./Va.), Cape Cod (Mass.), Fire Island (N.Y.), Cape Hatteras (N.C.), Cape Lookout (N.C.), Canaveral (Fla.), Cumberland Island (Ga.), Gulf Islands (Fla./Miss.), Point Reyes (Calif.), and Padre Island (Tex.).

Although one meter of sea level rise may not seem like a lot, Jarvis explained that it would be part of a cascade of effects.

“Coupled with sea level rise, big storms have that extra volume of water that can damage or destroy roads, bridges and buildings, and we saw what that looks like – again – with Hurricane Sandy in 2012,” he said.

The study is accessible through http://go.nps.gov/coastalassets.

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