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Climate Change Driving Widespread Loss of Coastal Forested Wetlands Throughout the North American Coastal Plain


Coastal forested wetlands support many endemic species, sequester substantial carbon stocks, and have been reduced in extent due to historic drainage and agricultural expansion. Many of these unique coastal ecosystems have been drained, while those that remain are now threatened by saltwater intrusion and sea level rise in hydrologically modified coastal landscapes. Several recent studies have documented rapid and accelerating losses of coastal forested wetlands in small areas of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America, but the full extent of loss across North America’s Coastal Plain (NACP) has not been quantified. We used classified satellite imagery to document a net loss of ~ 13,682 km2 (8%) of forested coastal wetlands across the NACP between 1996 and 2016. Most forests transitioned to scrub-shrub (53%) and marsh habitats (24%). Even within protected areas, we measured substantial rates of wetland deforestation and significant fragmentation of forested wetland habitats. Variation in the rate of sea level rise, the number of tropical storm landings, and the average elevation of coastal watersheds explained about 78% of the variation in coastal wetland deforestation extent along the South Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. The rate of coastal forest loss within the NACP (684 km2/y) exceeds the recent estimate of global losses of coastal mangroves (210 km2/y). At the current rate of deforestation, in the absence of widespread protection or restoration efforts, coastal forested wetlands may not persist into the next century.

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This research was supported by funding through the University of Virginia's Environmental Resilience Institute's Water Futures Initiative, by a NSF IOS grant (NSF 2005574) to X.Y. and E.E.W.J., by a NSF Coastal SEES program grant (NSF1426802) to E.S.B., and by a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship to E.A.U. The authors would like to thank all members of the Coastal Futures Working Group for their helpful suggestions and feedback.

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White, E.E., Ury, E.A., Bernhardt, E.S. et al. Climate Change Driving Widespread Loss of Coastal Forested Wetlands Throughout the North American Coastal Plain. Ecosystems (2021).

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  • Saltwater Intrusion
  • Sea Level Rise
  • Coastal Forested Wetlands
  • Remote Sensing
  • Climate Change
  • Land Cover/Land Use Change