Sea Level Rise: A Threat to Coastal Wildlife, Ecosystems

by SCCF Environmental Policy Intern Luke Miller

Sea level rise is among the largest threats to Florida’s coastal wildlife habitats. Many species depend on valuable coastline for their nesting sites, and the prospect of heightened sea levels that could impact these habitats is certainly cause for concern.

Florida in particular is especially vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise. The Sunshine State has more than 1,200 miles of coastline, almost 4,500 square miles of estuaries and bays, and more than 6,700 square miles of other coastal waters. Many Florida ecosystems are highly susceptible to the effects of sea level rise, including shorelines, barrier islands, bays, estuaries, lagoons, sounds, tidal salt marshes and creeks, mangrove swamps, shellfish beds, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and oyster bars.

Sea level rise and its related effects are already occurring, and they will continue to accelerate under current environmental conditions. Scientists with the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact have forecasted between 17 to 31 inches of sea level rise by 2060, and up to 74 inches by 2100. For Sanibel, three feet of sea level rise would leave almost all of our low-lying wetland habitats, which includes the vast majority of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Tarpon Bay, Sanibel Slough, and the bayous, completely underwater (NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer, 2020).

Such drastic changes to the island’s landscape would cause dramatic effects on the wildlife species that make their homes along our coastlines. Among the species at highest risk of extinction due to sea level rise are sea turtles and shorebirds that nest on sandy beaches (Center for Biological Diversity, 2013). Habitat loss would force these species to find homes elsewhere, and that transition could seriously reduce population numbers as they are forced to relocate to suitable habitats.

Fortunately, there are ways we can combat sea level rise and its effects on our barrier islands and coastal communities. Across Florida, municipalities are teaming up to form regional climate compacts, which share resources and coordinate management efforts to make our communities more resilient to sea level rise and the effects of climate change. Locally, the Southwest Florida Regional Resiliency Compact aims to address these challenges.

By sharing expertise, scientific data, and other resources, the region can maximize the efficiency of its efforts against climate change. Coordinating efforts will put Southwest Florida in a good position to qualify for state and federal funding for projects to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise. Regional compacts also provide a mechanism for advocating for policies that can help reduce greenhouse gasses, support cleaner energy (solar electricity, wind power), and forest preservation to achieve regional carbon neutrality.

If Florida’s communities enact policies such as these, we will be in a much better position to combat climate change and its associated effects on sea levels.

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