Coastal systems and low-lying areas

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Since the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR), our understanding of the implications of climate change for coastal systems and low-lying areas (henceforth referred to as ‘coasts’) has increased substantially and six important policy-relevant messages have emerged. 

Coasts are experiencing the adverse consequences of hazards related to climate and sea level (very high confidence). Coasts are highly vulnerable to extreme events, such as storms, which impose substantial costs on coastal societies [6.2.1, 6.2.2, 6.5.2]. Annually, about 120 million people are exposed to tropical cyclone hazards, which killed 250,000 people from 1980 to 2000 [6.5.2]. Through the 20th century, global rise of sea level contributed to increased coastal inundation, erosion and ecosystem losses, but with considerable local and regional variation due to other factors [6.2.5, 6.4.1]. Late 20th century effects of rising temperature include loss of sea ice, thawing of permafrost and associated coastal retreat, and more frequent coral bleaching and mortality [6.2.5]. 

Coasts will be exposed to increasing risks, including coastal erosion, over coming decades due to climate change and sea-level rise (very high confidence). Anticipated climate-related changes include: an accelerated rise in sea level of up to 0.6 m or more by 2100; a further rise in sea surface temperatures by up to 3°C; an intensification of tropical and extra-tropical cyclones; larger extreme waves and storm surges; altered precipitation/run-off; and ocean acidification [6.3.2]. These phenomena will vary considerably at regional and local scales, but the impacts are virtually certain to be overwhelmingly negative [6.4, 6.5.3]. 

Corals are vulnerable to thermal stress and have low adaptive capacity. Increases in sea surface temperature of about 1 to 3°C are projected to result in more frequent coral bleaching events and widespread mortality, unless there is thermal adaptation or acclimatisation by corals [Box 6.1, 6.4]. 

Coastal wetland ecosystems, such as saltmarshes and mangroves, are especially threatened where they are sediment starved or constrained on their landward margin [6.4.1]. Degradation of coastal ecosystems, especially wetlands and coral reefs, has serious implications for the well-being of societies dependent on the coastal ecosystems for goods and services [6.4.2, 6.5.3].  ncreased flooding and the degradation of freshwater, fisheries and other resources could impact hundreds of millions of people, and socio-economic costs on coasts will escalate as a result of climate change [6.4.2, 6.5.3]. 

The impact of climate change on coasts is exacerbated by increasing human-induced pressures (very high confidence). Utilisation of the coast increased dramatically during the 20th century and this trend is virtually certain to continue through the 21st century. Under the SRES scenarios, the coastal population could grow from 1.2 billion people (in 1990) to 1.8 to 5.2 billion people by the 2080s, depending on assumptions about migration [6.3.1]. Increasing numbers of people and assets at risk at the coast are subject to additional stresses due to land-use and hydrological changes in catchments, including dams that reduce sediment supply to the coast [6.3.2]. Populated deltas (especially Asian megadeltas), low-lying coastal urban areas and atolls are key societal hotspots of coastal vulnerability, occurring where the stresses on natural systems coincide with low human adaptive capacity and high exposure [6.4.3]. Regionally, South, South- East and East Asia, Africa and small islands are most vulnerable [6.4.2]. Climate change therefore reinforces the desirability of managing coasts in an integrated manner []. 

Adaptation for the coasts of developing countries will be more challenging than for coasts of developed countries, due to constraints on adaptive capacity (high confidence). While physical exposure can significantly influence vulnerability for both human populations and natural systems, a lack of adaptive capacity is often the most important factor that creates a hotspot of human vulnerability. Adaptive capacity is largely dependent upon development status. Developing nations may have the political or societal will to protect or relocate people who live in low-lying coastal zones, but without the necessary financial and other resources/capacities, their vulnerability is much greater than that of a developed nation in an identical coastal setting. Vulnerability will also vary between developing countries, while developed countries are not insulated from the adverse consequences of extreme events [6.4.3, 6.5.2]. 

Adaptation costs for vulnerable coasts are much less than the costs of inaction (high confidence). Adaptation costs for climate change are much lower than damage costs without adaptation for most developed coasts, even considering only property losses and human deaths [6.6.2, 6.6.3]. As post-event impacts on coastal businesses, people, housing, public and private social institutions, natural resources, and the environment generally go unrecognised in disaster cost accounting, the full benefits of adaptation are even larger [6.5.2, 6.6.2]. Without adaptation, the high-end sea-level rise scenarios, combined with other climate changes (e.g., increased storm intensity), are as likely as not to render some islands and lowlying areas unviable by 2100, so effective adaptation is urgently required [6.6.3]. 

The unavoidability of sea-level rise, even in the longer-term, frequently conflicts with present-day human development patterns and trends (high confidence). Sea-level rise has substantial inertia and will continue beyond 2100 for many centuries. Irreversible breakdown of the West Antarctica and/or Greenland ice sheets, if triggered by rising temperatures, would make this long-term rise significantly larger, ultimately questioning the viability of many coastal settlements across the globe. The issue is reinforced by the increasing human use of the coastal zone. Settlement patterns also have substantial inertia, and this issue presents a challenge for long-term coastal spatial planning. Stabilisation of climate could reduce the risks of ice sheet breakdown, and reduce but Chapter 6 Coastal systems and low-lying areas 317 not stop sea-level rise due to thermal expansion [Box 6.6]. Hence, it is now more apparent than it was in the TAR that the most appropriate response to sea-level rise for coastal areas is a combination of adaptation to deal with the inevitable rise, and mitigation to limit the long-term rise to a manageable level [6.6.5, 6.7]. 

Additional publication details

Publication type Book chapter
Title Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Chapter 6
Year Published 2007
Language English
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Contributing office(s) National Wetlands Research Center, Wetland and Aquatic Research Center
Description 42 p.
First page 315
Last page 356