Climate Report Finds Assateague Island’s Future In Doubt

ASSATEAGUE — A rather ominous report released this week on climate change and the associated sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast paints a grim picture for Assateague Island if the trend is not reversed, or at least stabilized, in the near future.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, on Wednesday released a new report on the potential long-term effects of climate change and sea-level rise on a handful of popular national seashores along the Atlantic Coast including Assateague. Called “Atlantic National Seashores in Peril-The Threats of Climate Disruption,” the report examines data collected over the last few decades and projects the research into the future in an effort to determine proposed impacts of temperature increase, an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms and sea-level rise on Assateague and similar barrier islands along the Atlantic coast visited by millions each year.

“The natural environment of Assateague Island National Seashore is expected to become less stable under most climate change projections,” the report reads. “Driven by increasing rates of sea level rise, more intense and possibly more frequent storms, the island will experience an increased likelihood for erosion, over wash, Inlet breaching, shoreline retreat and island narrowing. Should the highest rates of project sea level rise occur, the island may exceed stability thresholds, resulting in rapid migration landward, segmentation and possibly disintegration.”

According to the report, in 2010, the last year for which complete data is available, 2.1 million people visited Assateague Island and contributed $143 million in direct and indirect spending while supporting 2,041 jobs in the region. The dire report concludes the obvious economic and environmental benefits could be in peril if trends in temperature increase, sea-level rise and frequency and ferocity of storms continues in an upward direction as expected.

“The Atlantic coast national seashores are experiencing sea-level rise at least equal to the global average with Assateague clearly experiencing above-average rates,” the report reads. “Assateague Island has been identified as a ‘hot spot’ of accelerated sea-level rise and is expected to continue experiencing above-average sea-level rise.”

Recent storms have damaged the natural environment on Assateague, causing erosion of the shoreline and breaches of the protective dune system on occasion. The NRDC report concludes the recent damages will likely spike upward in the next few decades.

“Assateague Island, having been breached and segmented by recent sea-level rise and storms, may already be at a threshold of permanent geological change and that much of Cape Hatteras may also be at a similar threshold,” the report reads. “For both seashores, with any increase in the current rate of sea-level rise, it is virtually certain that they will experience large changes and degradation. With even a modest increase of an additional inch of sea-level rise every dozen years, it is very likely that their islands will be broken apart.”

The NRDC report predicts a continued upward trend in the average annual temperature at Assateague and the other national seashores examined in the study. The report illustrates how the average summer temperatures have gone up in the last 40-50 years and will continue to go up at an expedited rate in the future. For example, the average summer temperature at Assateague is now close to the average summer temperature in South Carolina as recently as just a decade ago, and will mirror the average summer temperature at Key West as soon as the next decade.

“Summer temperatures are particularly important for two reasons,” the report reads. “People visiting national seashores typically are outdoors, not in air-conditioned buildings, and for many people, outdoor activities, including beach-going, may simply become intolerably hot.

During a Wednesday teleconference on the release of the report, several of the scientists and advocates who worked on it commented not only on the potential effects of the research, but also issued a call to action.

“Massive and preventable damage to national seashores is too high a price to pay for failing to act on climate change,” said Theo Spencer, senior advocate in the Climate and Clean Air Program at the NRDC.  “This report makes clear that if we don’t cut the amount of heat-trapping pollution we spew into the air, these special places that Americans love will never be the same.”

According to S. Jeffress Williams, a retired scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey, the NRDC report should serve as a wake-up call.

“Science is compelling that climate is changing, becoming warmer and much more variable. Many impacts are already affecting Atlantic national seashores and will do so for decades into the future. This new assessment is important for planning for these changes by documenting effects such as sea-level rise and warming on both the natural resources in the parks and also the public who visit the parks and value what the parks offer.”