We used a numerical model to investigate how a barrier island groundwater system responds to increases of up to 60 cm in sea level. We found that a sea-level rise of 20 cm leads to substantial changes in the depth of the water table and the extent and depth of saltwater intrusion, which are key determinants in the establishment, distribution and succession of vegetation assemblages and habitat suitability in barrier islands ecosystems. In our simulations, increases in water-table height in areas with a shallow depth to water (or thin vadose zone) resulted in extensive groundwater inundation of land surface and a thinning of the underlying freshwater lens. We demonstrated the interdependence of the groundwater response to island morphology by evaluating changes at three sites. This interdependence can have a profound effect on ecosystem composition in these fragile coastal landscapes under long-term changing climatic conditions.