Global Warming Changing the Face of Chesapeake Bay, Memorial Day

In Vivid Detail, New Report Maps Sea-Level Rise Threat to Chesapeake Bay s Treasured Coastal Habitats, Regional Economy and Quality of Life

05-22-2008 // Aileo Weinmann

Sea-level rise maps and report details are available at www.nwf.org/chesapeake

WASHINGTON, DC -- If this Memorial Day weekend mirrors the last, about 350,000 people will cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, many to begin enjoying the ocean and bayside beaches of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware.

Unfortunately, more than half of those beaches hang in the balance, as global warming accelerates sea-level rise and drastically alters the region's coastline, according to a new study by National Wildlife Federation.

"Our region's national treasure and the economy it supports may be unrecognizable within the lifetime of a child born today," said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO, National Wildlife Federation.

National Wildlife Federation's new study, "Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Habitats of the Chesapeake Bay," maps in vivid detail the dramatic effects of sea-level rise on the nation's largest estuary, which sustains more than 3,600 species of plants, fish, and animals including great blue herons and sea turtles.

If global warming continues unabated, projected rising sea levels will significantly reshape the region's coastal landscape, threatening waterfowl hunting and recreational saltwater fishing in Virginia and Maryland that contribute roughly $725 million to the region's economy. Seafood lover's take note: Chesapeake Bay waters produce some 500 million pounds of seafood worth billions of dollars each year, including blue crab, rockfish and eastern oyster.

"We've spent years working to save the bay, but unless we address global warming, it could all be lost," added Schweiger. "No single silver bullet will save the bay from the effects of global warming. We need action at all levels of government."

Coastal habitats in the Chesapeake Bay region stand to lose more than half of their ocean and estuarine beaches, according to the new sea-level rise modeling commissioned by National Wildlife Federation. The most imperiled places are also the most valuable for fishing, waterfowl hunting, bird watching and playing on the shore: Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the barrier islands of Tangier Sound, and Virginia's Eastern Shore and the Lower Tidewater region, including Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

The study also projects that more than 415 square miles of open water will replace undeveloped dry land and marshes--an area roughly equivalent to Fairfax County (Virginia), slightly smaller than Montgomery County (Maryland), or the size of Rocky Mountain National Park--based on a global sea-level rise of just over two feet (well within the range projected this century).

"We face the prospect of losing much of what we treasure about the bay--its beaches, wildlife, and prized fishing--unless we prepare for the sea-level rise that our new modeling shows will happen," said Patty Glick, National Wildlife Federation senior global warming specialist and lead author of the report. "This analysis goes well beyond simple inundation modeling. It documents for the first time the many landscape and habitat changes that will occur along the entire bay coastline if global warming continues unchecked."

Among the report's key findings:

  • Global warming is changing the face of the Chesapeake Bay by accelerating the rate of sea-level rise, putting at risk the amazing diversity of coastal habitats that support a web of fish and wildlife and are the linchpin for the regional economy, culture and quality of life.
  • If sea levels rise globally about two feet by 2100, more than 167,000 acres of undeveloped dry land and about 161,000 acres of brackish marsh would be lost, replaced in part by more than 266,000 acres (415.6 square miles) of newly open water and 50,000 acres of saltmarsh.
  • Sea-level rise needs to be a major consideration in the region's coastal management and ecological restoration plans to (1) preserve the ability of habitats to migrate inland as sea levels rise; (2) aid natural and artificial sediment buildup in coastal wetlands and beaches; and (3) improve species' resiliency by maintaining a diverse array of habitats.

Cutting global warming pollution two percent per year to meet an 80 percent reduction goal by mid-century will be necessary to avoid the most damaging effects of climate change, according to leading scientists. National Wildlife Federation is calling on federal and state officials to take measures to meet this goal by enacting legislation that cuts global warming pollution.

"We don't have time to waste," said Schweiger. "Our children and grandchildren are counting on us to protect what is important--including that Memorial Day trip to enjoy the shores of the Chesapeake Bay."

The National Wildlife Federation is America's conservation organization inspiring Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future.

Contact: Aileo Weinmann, National Wildlife Federation, 202-797-6801, weinmanna@nwf.org

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