Climate Sensitivity of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (full report)

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The National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a network of 28 reserves that serve as “living laboratories” around the U.S. representing unique biogeographically diverse coastal ecosystems. Established under the Coastal Zone Management Act, the reserves are jointly managed by NOAA and the coastal states and territories for long-term research, ecosystems monitoring, education, and coastal stewardship.


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Estuaries: Coastal Climate Change Bellwethers

New report highlights key role of national estuaries in monitoring effects of climate change on coastal ecosystems

August 7, 2013
Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve

The Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve in California is one of four estuaries that experiences a high level of climate sensitivity, according to a new NOAA study.

The nation's 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves (NERR) are experiencing the negative effects of human and climate-related stressors, according to new NOAA research.

The national study, Climate Sensitivity of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, points to three East Coast reserves (Sapelo Island NERR in Georgia, ACE Basin NERR in South Carolina and Waquoit Bay NERR in Massachusetts) and the Tijuana River NERR on the California-Mexico border as the most sensitive to climate change.

Estuaries are places where rivers meet the sea, providing nursery habitat for fish and shellfish while buffering many coastal communities from the impacts of coastal storms and sea level rise. The climate exposure of each reserve provides 'first alarm' indicators about the effects of climate change on coastal ecosystems. Ongoing research at each of the reserves provides real-time data about how climate change impacts these important natural resources.

Researchers determined the extent of relative climate sensitivity in the reserves by looking at five factors: social, biophysical, and ecological sensitivity, and exposure to temperature change and sea level rise.

Key Findings

  • Reserve ecological resilience was examined and the key underlying estuarine stressors were found to be toxic pollutants, storm impacts, invasive species, habitat fragmentation, sedimentation, and shoreline erosion. The most frequently identified factors contributing to these stressors included residential development, land use, population growth, wastewater treatment and sea level rise.
  • High social sensitivity to climate change was indicated where there is higher employment within natural resource-dependent industries, lower per capita income and median home values, higher percentages of minority populations, and a higher percentage of individuals lacking a high school education. Social sensitivity to climate change was generally highest in the southern portions of the East and West coasts of the U.S., the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska.
  • Biophysical sensitivity summarizes each reserve's relationship between annual spring atmospheric temperature, rainfall data, and water quality factors such as water temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pH. Temperature change exposure risk was greatest for reserves located in the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast regions of the country, while reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, parts of the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, California, and Oregon showed the greatest risk of sea level rise exposure.
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The study, funded by NOAA’s Climate Program Office, was conducted by a collaborative, interdisciplinary team of investigators from the University of Wisconsin, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, and the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management working with staff across the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.

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