We analyse the potential impacts of sea-level rise on the management of saline coastal wetlands in the Hunter River estuary, NSW, Australia. We model two management options: leaving all floodgates open, facilitating retreat of mangrove and saltmarsh into low-lying coastal lands; and leaving floodgates closed. For both management options we modelled the potential extent of saline coastal wetland to 2100 under a low sea-level rise scenario (based on 5 % minima of SRES B1 emissions scenario) and a high sea-level rise scenario (based on 95 % maxima of SRES A1FI emissions scenario). In both instances we quantified the carbon burial benefits associated with those actions. Using a dynamic elevation model, which factored in the accretion and vertical elevation responses of mangrove and saltmarsh to rising sea levels, we projected the distribution of saline coastal wetlands, and estimated the volume of sediment and carbon burial across the estuary under each scenario. We found that the management of floodgates is the primary determinant of potential saline coastal wetland extent to 2100, with only 33 % of the potential wetland area remaining under the high sea-level rise scenario, with floodgates closed, and with a 127 % expansion of potential wetland extent with floodgates open and levees breached. Carbon burial was an additional benefit of accommodating landward retreat of wetlands, with an additional 280,000 tonnes of carbon buried under the high sea-level rise scenario with floodgates open (775,075 tonnes with floodgates open and 490,280 tonnes with floodgates closed). Nearly all of the Hunter Wetlands National Park, a Ramsar wetland, will be lost under the high sea-level rise scenario, while there is potential for expansion of the wetland area by 35 % under the low sea-level rise scenario, regardless of floodgate management. We recommend that National Parks, Reserves, Ramsar sites and other static conservation mechanisms employed to protect significant coastal wetlands must begin to employ dynamic buffers to accommodate sea-level rise change impacts, which will likely require land purchase or other agreements with private landholders. The costs of facilitating adaptation may be offset by carbon sequestration gains.
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Max Finlayson is thanked for his comments on approaches to climate change adaptation under the Ramsar Convention. We also thank David Hanslow (NSW Office of Environment and Heritage) for helpful advice and three anonymous reviewers. Part of this research was funded by the NSW Environmental Trust with support provided by Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project.
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Rogers, K., Saintilan, N. & Copeland, C. Managed Retreat of Saline Coastal Wetlands: Challenges and Opportunities Identified from the Hunter River Estuary, Australia. Estuaries and Coasts 37, 67–78 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-013-9664-6