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New coastal change scenarios show enduring future habitat for the threatened piping plover, but potential loss of land that supports coastal homes and infrastructure.

Sea-level rise is expected to have many negative implications for coastal communities, including land loss due to increased erosion and flooding events. New science focused on Fire Island, New York, suggests that while there may be detrimental impacts for residents and businesses on the island, future effects of sea-level rise could offer conservation opportunities for shorebirds like the threatened piping plover. Predicting the barrier island's future condition is important for planning and balancing the habitat needs of threatened and endangered species with those of humans.

Dr. Sara Zeigler and her team used probabilistic models to predict barrier island traits like elevation, beach width, and dune height under three scenarios of shoreline management and associated change at Fire Island, New York out to the year 2050. They also predicted how parts of the island were likely to be permanently flooded by sea-level rise while other parts experience storm-induced overwash—where waves overtop the dunes and move sand deeper into the island.

Three panel figure shows predicted sea level rises out to 2050 resulting in more water coverage and increased plover habitat
Forecasted piping plover habitat availability in the Otis Pike Wilderness Area, Fire Island based on sea-level rise predictions out to the year 2050.

In one scenario, the authors assumed that people would manage the shoreline through beach renourishment and other activities to minimize (but not prevent) shoreline erosion. Under this assumption, up to 0.2 km2 of land that currently supports existing housing communities and recreational infrastructure along the shoreline would be below sea-level by 2050. However, it’s important to note that coastal engineering designed to slow shoreline erosion and flooding may actually exacerbate problems. These interventions may hinder natural processes that build island elevation with rising sea levels, setting the stage for catastrophic flooding and overwash with storms. Further engineering of Fire Island with artificial dunes and other hard stabilization structures may protect current housing and infrastructure over the short-term, but at the cost of long-term barrier island resilience.

With no intervention, sea-level rise is expected to cause shoreline erosion of 3 to 9 meters per year and lead to a significant change in the Fire Island shoreline position over the next 30 years. Changes of this magnitude mean that up to 1.4 km2 of land supporting existing housing and infrastructure along the island would be below sea level by 2050. In nearby areas such as the Delmarva Peninsula, even higher rates of relative sea-level and shoreline change have already been observed, which supports the potential for high magnitudes of shoreline change on other barrier islands like Fire Island.

With increasing shoreline erosion and landward retreat, Fire Island was predicted to become flatter, narrower, and more overwash-prone. Models predicted that beach habitats used by shorebirds like the Atlantic Coast piping plover would become more widespread as the shoreline changes, as long as human structures like buildings or seawalls do not block sand movement. Piping plovers are known to colonize overwash areas quickly after storms, and, with these events becoming more frequent with increasing sea-level, the birds could have access to more habitat. The Atlantic Coast piping plover population is managed within several regional management zones, known as recovery units. The New York-New Jersey recovery unit does not have many natural barrier islands remaining, which highlights the importance of natural, undeveloped portions of Fire Island as nesting habitat.

A piping plover (shorebird) walks along dark, wet sand
Piping Plover. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

“There’s a delicate balance to be struck between preventing an overwhelming amount of coastal erosion, while still allowing the barrier island to respond to changes in sea level, which makes it more resilient,” said Sara Zeigler, lead author on the paper. “But there are many positive aspects to allowing natural barrier island change, like increasing habitats for shorebirds like the piping plover and allowing the island’s elevation to keep pace with sea-level rise.”

Natural barrier islands are able to withstand and adapt to changing conditions and can respond to high water levels by gradually moving towards the mainland. One way this occurs is through “island rollover,” when water pushes sediment from the ocean shoreline to the back of the island, hence repositioning the island and allowing sediment to build up in the island’s interior. While beach habitats, and therefore shorebirds and many other beach-dwelling animals and plants, can adapt and even thrive on these changing shorelines, coastal communities with fixed buildings cannot.

The publication team included Drs. Sara Zeigler (St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center; SPCMSC), Ben Gutierrez (Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center; WHCMSC), Erika Lentz (WHCMSC), and Nathaniel Plant (SPCMSC). The paper, “Predicted Sea-Level Rise-Driven Biogeomorphological Changes on Fire Island, New York: Implications for People and Plovers” was published in the journal Earth’s Future on April 12, 2022.

Learn more about Coastal Change at Fire Island.

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