Physical Climate Forces

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Key Findings

The coasts of the U.S. are home to many large urban centers and important infrastructure such seaports, airports, transportation routes, oil import and refining facilities, power plants, and military bases. All are vulnerable to varying degrees to impacts of global warming such as sea-level rise, storms, and flooding. High Confidence.

Physical observations collected over the past several decades from the land, coasts, oceans, and the atmosphere, as well as environmental indicators, show that warming and some related environmental changes are occurring globally at rates greater than can be expected due to natural processes. These climate-related changes are highly varied, but some are likely due in large part to anthropogenically increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and altered land surface properties. High Confidence.

Findings from many independent scientific studies conclude that these changes are consistent with global warming. The primary changes observed are rising sea level and average global air, land, and ocean temperatures; heightening temperature and precipitation extremes in some regions; and increasing levels of oceans acidification and rates of glacier and ice sheet melt. High Confidence.

Most coastal landforms, such as barrier islands, deltas, bays, estuaries, wetlands, coral reefs, are highly dynamic and sensitive to even small changes in physical
forces and feedbacks such as warming, storms, ocean circulation, waves and currents, flooding, sediment budgets, and sea-level rise. High Confidence.

The effects of sea-level rise on coasts vary considerably from region-to-region and over a range of spatial and temporal scales. Land subsidence in certain locations causes relative sea-level rise to exceed global mean sea-level rise. Land uplift such as that found in Alaska and the Northwestern Pacific coast can reduce effects of global mean rise. The effects will be greatest and most immediate on low-relief, low-elevation parts of the U.S. coast along the Gulf of Mexico, mid-Atlantic states, northern Alaska, Hawaii, and island territories and especially on coasts containing deltas, coastal plains, tidal wetlands, bays, estuaries, and coral reefs. Beaches and wetlands on steep cliff coasts and shores backed with seawalls may be unable to move landward or maintain their landform with sea-level rise. Many areas of the coast are especially vulnerable because of the often detrimental effects of development on natural processes. High Confidence.

The gradual inundation from recent sea-level rise is evident in many regions such as the mid-Atlantic and Louisiana where high tides regularly flood roads and areas that were previously dry, and in stands of “ghost forests,” in which trees are killed by intrusion of brackish water. High Confidence.

Sea level change and storms are dominant driving forces of coastal change as observed in the geologic record of coastal landforms. Increasingly, sea-level rise will become a hazard for coastal regions because of continued global mean sea-level rise, including possibly accelerated rates of rise that increase risk to coastal regions. As the global climate continues to warm and ice sheets melt, coasts will become more dynamic and coastal cities and low-lying areas will be increasingly exposed to erosion, inundation, and flooding. High Confidence. 

No coordinated, interagency process exists in the U.S. for identifying agreed upon global mean sea-level rise projections for the purpose of coastal planning, policy, or management, even though this is a critical first step in assessing coastal impacts and vulnerabilities. High Confidence. 

Global sea level rose at a rate of 1.7 millimeters/year during the 20th century. The rate has increased to over 3 millimeters/year in the past 20 years and scientific studies suggest high confidence (>9 in 10 chance) that global mean sea level will rise 0.2 to 2 meters by the end of this century. Some regions such as Louisiana and the Chesapeake Bay will experience greater relative rise due to factors such as land subsidence, gravitational redistribution of ice-sheet meltwater, ocean circulation changes, and regional ocean thermostatic effects. Other regions undergoing land uplift, such as Alaska, will experience lesser sea-level rise. High Confidence.

Variability in the location and time-of-year of storm genesis can influence landfalling storm characteristics, and even small changes can lead to large changes in landfalling location and impact. Although scientists have only low confidence in the sign of projected changes to the coast of storm-related hazards that depend on a combination of factors such as frequency, track, intensity, and storm size, any sea-level rise is virtually certain to exacerbate storm-related hazards. High Confidence.

Although sea-level rise and climate change have occurred in the past, the increasing human presence in the coastal zone will make the impacts different
for the future. Land use and other human activities often inhibit the natural response of physical processes and adaptation by plants and animals. In some
areas, erosion and wetland loss are common because sediment budgets have been reduced, while, in other regions, excess sediment is in-filling harbors, channels, and bays. High Confidence. 

Observations continue to indicate an ongoing, warming-induced intensification of the hydrologic cycle that will likely result in heavier precipitation events and, combined with sea-level rise and storm surge, an increased flooding severity in some coastal areas, particularly the northeast U.S. Moderate Confidence.

Temperature is primarily driving environmental change in the Alaskan coastal zone. Sea ice and permafrost make northern regions particularly susceptible to temperature change. For example, an increase of two degrees Celsius could basically transform much of Alaska from frozen to unfrozen, with extensive implications. Portions of the north and west coast of Alaska are seeing dramatic increases in the rate of coastal erosion and flooding due to sea ice loss and permafrost melting. As a consequence, several coastal communities are planning to relocate to safer locations. Relocation is a difficult decision that is likely to become more common in the future for many coastal regions. High Confidence.

Methane is a primary greenhouse gas. Large reserves of methane are bound-up in Alaska’s frozen permafrost. These are susceptible to disturbance and methane
release if the Arctic continues to warm. The additional methane released may result in even greater greenhouse warming of the atmosphere. High Confidence.

Additional publication details

Publication type Book chapter
Title Physical Climate Forces
Chapter 2
Year Published 2012
Language English
Publisher Island Press
Contributing office(s) New England Water Science Center
Description 44 p.
Larger Work Type Report
Larger Work Subtype Federal Government Series
Larger Work Title Coastal Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: A Technical Input to the 2012 National Climate Assessment. Cooperative Report to the 2013 National Climate Assessment
First page 10
Last page 53