Coastal Systems and Low Lying Areas

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Coastal systems and low-lying
R.J. Nicholls; P.P. Wong; V.R. Burkett; J.O. Codignotto;
J.E. Hay; R.F. McLean; S. Ragoonaden; and C.D. Woodroffe
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
The following document can be cited as:
Nicholls, R.J., P.P. Wong, V.R. Burkett, J.O. Codignotto, J.E. Hay, R.F. McLean, S.
Ragoonaden and C.D. Woodroffe, 2007: Coastal systems and low-lying areas. Climate Change
2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth
Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F.
Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, UK, 315-356.
The primary referring page for this document is
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Coordinating Lead Authors:
Robert J. Nicholls (UK), Poh Poh Wong (Singapore)
Lead Authors:
Virginia Burkett (USA), Jorge Codignotto (Argentina), John Hay (New Zealand), Roger McLean (Australia), Sachooda Ragoonaden
(Mauritius), Colin D. Woodroffe (Australia)
Contributing Authors:
Pamela Abuodha (Kenya), Julie Arblaster (USA/Australia), Barbara Brown (UK), Don Forbes (Canada), Jim Hall (UK), Sari Kovats (UK),
Jason Lowe (UK), Kathy McInnes (Australia), Susanne Moser (USA), Susanne Rupp-Armstrong (UK), Yoshiki Saito (Japan),
Richard S.J. Tol (Ireland)
Review Editors:
Job Dronkers (The Netherlands), Geoff Love (Australia), Jin-Eong Ong (Malaysia)
This chapter should be cited as:
Nicholls, R.J., P.P. Wong, V.R. Burkett, J.O. Codignotto, J.E. Hay, R.F. McLean, S. Ragoonaden and C.D. Woodroffe, 2007: Coastal
systems and low-lying areas. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth
Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and
C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 315-356.
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Chapter 6
Table of Contents
Executive summary .....................................................317
Introduction: scope, summary of TAR
conclusions and key issues ..............................318
Current sensitivity/vulnerability ...................318
6.2.1 Natural coastal systems .........................................318
6.2.2 Increasing human utilisation of the coastal zone ...319
6.2.3 External terrestrial and marine influences ..............319
Methods and tools for characterising socioeconomic consequences ......................................337
Socio-economic consequences under current
climate conditions .................................................337
Socio-economic consequences of climate
6.2.4 Thresholds in the behaviour of coastal systems....320
Observed effects of climate change on coastal
systems .................................................................320
Box 6.1 Environmental thresholds and observed
coral bleaching ......................................................321
Assumptions about future trends for
coastal systems and low-lying areas .............322
6.3.1 Environmental and socio-economic trends ...........322
6.3.2 Climate and sea-level scenarios ............................322
Key future impacts and vulnerabilities .......324
Natural system responses to climate change
Box 6.2 Examples of extreme water level simulations
for impact studies..................................................325
Box 6.3 Deltas and megadeltas: hotspots for
vulnerability ...........................................................327
6.4.2 Consequences for human society .........................330
Box 6.4 Hurricane Katrina and coastal ecosystem
services in the Mississippi delta............................332
6.4.3 Key vulnerabilities and hotspots ............................336
Costs and other socio-economic aspects ......336
Adaptation: practices, options and
constraints ...........................................................340
Adaptation to changes in climate and sea level ...340
Box 6.5 Recent extreme events – lessons for coastal
adaptation to climate change................................340
Costs and benefits of adaptation..........................342
Limits and trade-offs in adaptation .......................342
Adaptive capacity..................................................344
The links between adaptation and mitigation
in coastal and low-lying areas...............................344
Conclusions: implications for sustainable
development ........................................................345
Key uncertainties, research gaps and
priorities ..............................................................345
Box 6.6 Long-term sea-level rise impacts
(beyond 2100)........................................................346
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Executive Summary
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 sedimentstarved 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]. Increased 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
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
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].
6.1 Introduction: scope, summary of Third
Assessment Report conclusions and
key issues
This chapter presents a global perspective on the impacts of
climate change and sea-level rise on coastal and adjoining lowlying areas, with an emphasis on post-2000 insights. Here,
coastal systems are considered as the interacting low-lying areas
and shallow coastal waters, including their human components
(Figure 6.1). This includes adjoining coastal lowlands, which
have often developed through sedimentation during the
Holocene (past 10,000 years), but excludes the continental shelf
and ocean margins (for marine ecosystems see Chapter 4).
Inland seas are not covered, except as analogues. In addition to
local drivers and interactions, coasts are subject to external
events that pose a hazard to human activities and may
compromise the natural functioning of coastal systems (Figure
6.1). Terrestrial-sourced hazards include river floods and inputs
of sediment or pollutants; marine-sourced hazards include storm
surges, energetic swell and tsunamis.
In this chapter, we reinforce the findings of the Third
Assessment Report (TAR; IPCC, 2001) concerning the potential
importance of the full range of climate change drivers on
coastal systems and the complexity of their potential effects.
The TAR also noted growing interest in adaptation to climate
change in coastal areas, a trend which continues to gather
momentum, as shown in this assessment. Whereas some coastal
countries and communities have the adaptive capacity to
minimise the impacts of climate change, others have fewer
options and hence are much more vulnerable to climate change.
This is compounded as human population growth in many
coastal regions is both increasing socio-economic vulnerability
Figure 6.1. Climate change and the coastal system showing the major
climate change factors, including external marine and terrestrial
Chapter 6
and decreasing the resilience of coastal systems. Integrated
assessment and management of coastal systems, together with
a better understanding of their interaction with socio-economic
and cultural development, were presented in the TAR as
important components of successful adaptation to climate
This chapter builds on and develops these insights in the
TAR by considering the emerging knowledge concerning
impacts and adaptation to climate change in coastal areas across
a wider spectrum of climate change drivers and from local to
global scales. Nonetheless, the issue of sea-level rise still
dominates the literature on coastal areas and climate change.
This chapter includes an assessment of current sensitivity and
vulnerability, the key changes that coastal systems may undergo
in response to climate and sea-level change, including costs and
other socio-economic aspects, the potential for adaptation, and
the implications for sustainable development. Given that there
are strong interactions both within and between the natural and
human sub-systems in the coastal system (Figure 6.1), this
chapter takes an integrated perspective of the coastal zone and
its management, insofar as the published literature permits.
6.2 Current sensitivity/vulnerability
This section provides key insights into the ways in which
coastal systems are presently changing, as context for assessing
the impacts of, and early effects attributable to, climate change.
Natural coastal systems
Coasts are dynamic systems, undergoing adjustments of form
and process (termed morphodynamics) at different time and
space scales in response to geomorphological and
oceanographical factors (Cowell et al., 2003a,b). Human activity
exerts additional pressures that may dominate over natural
processes. Often models of coastal behaviour are based on
palaeoenvironmental reconstructions at millennial scales and/or
process studies at sub-annual scales (Rodriguez et al., 2001;
Storms et al., 2002; Stolper et al., 2005). Adapting to global
climate change, however, requires insight into processes at
decadal to century scales, at which understanding is least
developed (de Groot, 1999; Donnelly et al., 2004).
Coastal landforms, affected by short-term perturbations such
as storms, generally return to their pre-disturbance morphology,
implying a simple, morphodynamic equilibrium. Many coasts
undergo continual adjustment towards a dynamic equilibrium,
often adopting different ‘states’ in response to varying wave
energy and sediment supply (Woodroffe, 2003). Coasts respond
to altered conditions external to the system, such as storm
events, or changes triggered by internal thresholds that cannot be
predicted on the basis of external stimuli. This natural variability
of coasts can make it difficult to identify the impacts of climate
change. For example, most beaches worldwide show evidence of
recent erosion but sea-level rise is not necessarily the primary
driver. Erosion can result from other factors, such as altered
wind patterns (Pirazzoli et al., 2004; Regnauld et al., 2004),
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
offshore bathymetric changes (Cooper and Navas, 2004), or
reduced fluvial sediment input (Sections 6.2.4 and A
major challenge is determining whether observed changes have
resulted from alteration in external factors (such as climate
change), exceeding an internal threshold (such as a delta
distributary switching to a new location), or short-term
disturbance within natural climate variability (such as a storm).
Climate-related ocean-atmosphere oscillations can lead to
coastal changes (Viles and Goudie, 2003). One of the most
prominent is the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)
phenomenon, an interaction between pronounced temperature
anomalies and sea-level pressure gradients in the equatorial
Pacific Ocean, with an average periodicity of 2 to 7 years.
Recent research has shown that dominant wind patterns and
storminess associated with ENSO may perturb coastal dynamics,
influencing (1) beach morphodynamics in eastern Australia
(Ranasinghe et al., 2004; Short and Trembanis, 2004), midPacific (Solomon and Forbes, 1999) and Oregon (Allan et al.,
2003); (2) cliff retreat in California (Storlazzi and Griggs, 2000);
and (3) groundwater levels in mangrove ecosystems in
Micronesia (Drexler, 2001) and Australia (Rogers et al., 2005).
Coral bleaching and mortality appear related to the frequency
and intensity of ENSO events in the Indo-Pacific region, which
may alter as a component of climate change (Box 6.1),
becoming more widespread because of global warming (Stone
et al., 1999). It is likely that coasts also respond to longer term
variations; for instance, a relationship with the Pacific Decadal
Oscillation (PDO) is indicated by monitoring of a south-east
Australian beach for more than 30 years (McLean and Shen,
2006). Correlations between the North Atlantic Oscillation
(NAO) and storm frequency imply similar periodic influences
on Atlantic coasts (Tsimplis et al., 2005, 2006), and the Indian
Ocean Dipole (IOD) may drive similar periodic fluctuations on
coasts around the Indian Ocean (Saji et al., 1999).
greater than 10 million. Rapid urbanisation has many
consequences: for example, enlargement of natural coastal inlets
and dredging of waterways for navigation, port facilities, and
pipelines exacerbate saltwater intrusion into surface and ground
waters. Increasing shoreline retreat and risk of flooding of
coastal cities in Thailand (Durongdej, 2001; Saito, 2001), India
(Mohanti, 2000), Vietnam (Thanh et al., 2004) and the United
States (Scavia et al., 2002) have been attributed to degradation
of coastal ecosystems by human activities, illustrating a
widespread trend.
The direct impacts of human activities on the coastal zone
have been more significant over the past century than impacts
that can be directly attributed to observed climate change
(Scavia et al., 2002; Lotze et al., 2006). The major direct impacts
include drainage of coastal wetlands, deforestation and
reclamation, and discharge of sewage, fertilisers and
contaminants into coastal waters. Extractive activities include
sand mining and hydrocarbon production, harvests of fisheries
and other living resources, introductions of invasive species and
construction of seawalls and other structures. Engineering
structures, such as damming, channelisation and diversions of
coastal waterways, harden the coast, change circulation patterns
and alter freshwater, sediment and nutrient delivery. Natural
systems are often directly or indirectly altered, even by soft
engineering solutions, such as beach nourishment and foredune
construction (Nordstrom, 2000; Hamm and Stive, 2002).
Ecosystem services on the coast are often disrupted by human
activities. For example, tropical and subtropical mangrove
forests and temperate saltmarshes provide goods and services
(they accumulate and transform nutrients, attenuate waves and
storms, bind sediments and support rich ecological
communities), which are reduced by large-scale ecosystem
conversion for agriculture, industrial and urban development,
and aquaculture (Section 6.4.2).
Increasing human utilisation of the coastal
Few of the world’s coastlines are now beyond the influence
of human pressures, although not all coasts are inhabited
(Buddemeier et al., 2002). Utilisation of the coast increased
dramatically during the 20th century, a trend that seems certain
to continue through the 21st century (Section 6.3.1). Coastal
population growth in many of the world’s deltas, barrier islands
and estuaries has led to widespread conversion of natural coastal
landscapes to agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture, as well as
industrial and residential uses (Valiela, 2006). It has been
estimated that 23% of the world’s population lives both within
100 km distance of the coast and <100 m above sea level, and
population densities in coastal regions are about three times
higher than the global average (Small and Nicholls, 2003) (see
also Box 6.6). The attractiveness of the coast has resulted in
disproportionately rapid expansion of economic activity,
settlements, urban centres and tourist resorts. Migration of
people to coastal regions is common in both developed and
developing nations. Sixty percent of the world’s 39 metropolises
with a population of over 5 million are located within 100 km of
the coast, including 12 of the world’s 16 cities with populations
External terrestrial and marine influences
External terrestrial influences have led to substantial
environmental stresses on coastal and nearshore marine habitats
(Sahagian, 2000; Saito, 2001; NRC, 2004; Crossland et al., 2005).
As a consequence of activities outside the coastal zone, natural
ecosystems (particularly within the catchments draining to the
coast) have been fragmented and the downstream flow of water,
sediment and nutrients has been disrupted (Nilsson et al., 2005;
Section Land-use change, particularly deforestation, and
hydrological modifications have had downstream impacts, in
addition to localised development on the coast. Erosion in the
catchment has increased river sediment load; for example,
suspended loads in the Huanghe (Yellow) River have increased 2
to 10 times over the past 2000 years (Jiongxin, 2003). In contrast,
damming and channelisation have greatly reduced the supply of
sediments to the coast on other rivers through retention of
sediment in dams (Syvitski et al., 2005). This effect will likely
dominate during the 21st century (Section 6.4.1).
Coasts can be affected by external marine influences (Figure
6.1). Waves generated by storms over the oceans reach the coast
as swell; there are also more extreme, but infrequent, highenergy swells generated remotely (Vassie et al., 2004). Tsunamis
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
are still rarer, but can be particularly devastating (Bryant, 2001).
Ocean currents modify coastal environments through their
influence on heat transfer, with both ecological and
geomorphological consequences. Sea ice has physical impacts,
and its presence or absence influences whether or not waves
reach the coast (Jaagus, 2006). Other external influences include
atmospheric inputs, such as dust (Shinn et al., 2000), and
invasive species.
Thresholds in the behaviour of coastal
Dynamic coastal systems often show complex, non-linear
morphological responses to change (Dronkers, 2005). Erosion,
transport and deposition of sediment often involve significant
time-lags (Brunsden, 2001), and the morphological evolution of
sedimentary coasts is the outcome of counteracting transport
processes of sediment supply versus removal. A shoreline may
adopt an equilibrium, in profile or plan form, where these
processes are in balance. However, external factors, such as
storms, often induce morphodynamic change away from an
equilibrium state. Climate change and sea-level rise affect
sediment transport in complex ways and abrupt, non-linear
changes may occur as thresholds are crossed (Alley et al., 2003).
If sea level rises slowly, the balance between sediment supply and
morphological adjustment can be maintained if a saltmarsh
accretes, or a lagoon infills, at the same rate. An acceleration in the
rate of sea-level rise may mean that morphology cannot keep up,
particularly where the supply of sediment is limited, as for
example when coastal floodplains are inundated after natural
levees or artificial embankments are overtopped. Exceeding the
critical sea-level thresholds can initiate an irreversible process of
drowning, and other geomorphological and ecological responses
follow abrupt changes of inundation and salinity (Williams et al.,
1999; Doyle et al., 2003; Burkett et al., 2005). Widespread
submergence is expected in the case of the coast of the Wadden
Sea if the rate of relative sea-level rise exceeds 10 mm/yr (van
Goor et al., 2003). For each coastal system the critical threshold
will have a specific value, depending on hydrodynamic and
sedimentary characteristics. Abrupt and persistent flooding occurs
in coastal Argentina when landward winds (sudestadas) and/or
heavy rainfall coincide with storm surges (Canziani and Gimenez,
2002; Codignotto, 2004a), further emphasising non-linearities
between several interacting factors. Better understanding of
thresholds in, and non-linear behaviour of, coastal systems will
enhance the ability of managers and engineers to plan more
effective coastal protection strategies, including the placement of
coastal buildings, infrastructure and defences.
Observed effects of climate change on
coastal systems
Trenberth et al. (2007) and Bindoff et al. (2007) observed a
number of important climate change-related effects relevant to
coastal zones. Rising CO2 concentrations have lowered ocean
surface pH by 0.1 unit since 1750, although to date no
significant impacts on coastal ecosystems have been identified.
Recent trend analyses indicate that tropical cyclones have
Chapter 6
increased in intensity (see Section 6.3.2). Global sea levels rose
at 1.7 ± 0.5 mm/yr through the 20th century, while global mean
sea surface temperatures have risen about 0.6°C since 1950,
with associated atmospheric warming in coastal areas (Bindoff
et al., 2007).
Many coasts are experiencing erosion and ecosystem losses
(Sections 6.2.1 and 6.4.1), but few studies have unambiguously
quantified the relationships between observed coastal land loss
and the rate of sea-level rise (Zhang et al., 2004; Gibbons and
Nicholls, 2006). Coastal erosion is observed on many shorelines
around the world, but it usually remains unclear to what extent
these losses are associated with relative sea-level rise due to
subsidence, and other human drivers of land loss, and to what
extent they result from global warming (Hansom, 2001; Jackson
et al., 2002; Burkett et al., 2005; Wolters et al., 2005) (see Chapter
1, Section 1.3.3). Long-term ecological studies of rocky shore
communities indicate adjustments apparently coinciding with
climatic trends (Hawkins et al., 2003). However, for midlatitudinal coastal systems it is often difficult to discriminate the
extent to which such changes are a part of natural variability; and
the clearest evidence of the impact of climate change on coasts
over the past few decades comes from high and low latitudes,
particularly polar coasts and tropical reefs.
There is evidence for a series of adverse impacts on polar
coasts, although warmer conditions in high latitudes can have
positive effects, such as longer tourist seasons and improved
navigability (see Chapter 15, Section Traditional
knowledge also points to widespread coastal change across the
North American Arctic from the Northwest Territories, Yukon
and Alaska in the west to Nunavut in the east (Fox, 2003).
Reduced sea-ice cover means a greater potential for wave
generation where the coast is exposed (Johannessen et al., 2002;
Forbes, 2005; Kont et al., 2007). Moreover, relative sea-level
rise on low-relief, easily eroded, shores leads to rapid retreat,
accentuated by melting of permafrost that binds coastal
sediments, warmer ground temperatures, enhanced thaw, and
subsidence associated with the melting of massive ground ice, as
recorded at sites in Arctic Canada (Forbes et al., 2004b; Manson
et al., 2006), northern USA (Smith, 2002b; Lestak et al., 2004)
and northern Russia (Koreysha et al., 2002; Nikiforov et al.,
2003; Ogorodov, 2003). Mid-latitude coasts with seasonal sea
ice may also respond to reduced ice cover; ice extent has
diminished over recent decades in the Bering and Baltic Seas
(ARAG, 1999; Jevrejeva et al., 2004) and possibly in the Gulf
of St. Lawrence (Forbes et al., 2002).
Global warming poses a threat to coral reefs, particularly any
increase in sea surface temperature (SST). The synergistic
effects of various other pressures, particularly human impacts
such as over-fishing, appear to be exacerbating the thermal
stresses on reef systems and, at least on a local scale, exceeding
the thresholds beyond which coral is replaced by other
organisms (Buddemeier et al., 2004). These impacts and their
likely consequences are considered in Box 6.1, the threat posed
by ocean acidification is examined in Chapter 4, Section 4.4.9,
the impact of multiple stresses is examined in Box 16.2, and the
example of the Great Barrier Reef, where decreases in coral
cover could have major negative impacts on tourism, is
described in Chapter 11, Section 11.6.
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Box 6.1. Environmental thresholds and observed coral bleaching
Coral bleaching, due to the loss of symbiotic algae and/or their pigments, has been observed on many reefs since the early
1980s. It may have previously occurred, but gone unrecorded. Slight paling occurs naturally in response to seasonal increases
in sea surface temperature (SST) and solar radiation. Corals bleach white in response to anomalously high SST (~1°C above
average seasonal maxima, often combined with high solar radiation). Whereas some corals recover their natural colour when
environmental conditions ameliorate, their growth rate and reproductive ability may be significantly reduced for a substantial
period. If bleaching is prolonged, or if SST exceeds 2°C above average seasonal maxima, corals die. Branching species appear
more susceptible than massive corals (Douglas, 2003).
Major bleaching events were observed in 1982-83, 1987-88 and 1994-95 (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999). Particularly severe bleaching
occurred in 1998 (Figure 6.2), associated with pronounced El Niño events in one of the hottest years on record (Lough, 2000;
Bruno et al., 2001). Since 1998 there have been several extensive bleaching events. For example, in 2002 bleaching occurred
on much of the Great Barrier Reef (Berkelmans et al., 2004; see Chapter 11, Section 11.6) and elsewhere. Reefs in the eastern
Caribbean experienced a massive bleaching event in late 2005, another of the hottest years on record. On many Caribbean
reefs, bleaching exceeded that of 1998 in both extent and mortality (Figure 6.2), and reefs are in decline as a result of the
synergistic effects of multiple stresses (Gardner et al., 2005; McWilliams et al., 2005; see Box 16.2). There is considerable
variability in coral susceptibility and recovery to elevated SST in both time and space, and in the incidence of mortality (Webster
et al., 1999; Wilkinson, 2002; Obura, 2005).
Figure 6.2. Maximum monthly mean sea surface temperature for 1998, 2002 and 2005, and locations of reported coral bleaching (data
source, NOAA Coral Reef Watch ( and Reefbase (
Global climate model results imply that thermal thresholds will be exceeded more frequently with the consequence that
bleaching will recur more often than reefs can sustain (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999, 2004; Donner et al., 2005), perhaps almost
annually on some reefs in the next few decades (Sheppard, 2003; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2005). If the threshold remains unchanged,
more frequent bleaching and mortality seems inevitable (see Figure 6.3a), but with local variations due to different susceptibilities
to factors such as water depth. Recent preliminary studies lend some support to the adaptive bleaching hypothesis, indicating
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Chapter 6
that the coral host may be able to adapt or acclimatise as a result of expelling one clade1 of symbiotic algae but recovering with
a new one (termed shuffling, see Box 4.4), creating ‘new’ ecospecies with different temperature tolerances (Coles and Brown,
2003; Buddemeier et al., 2004; Little et al., 2004; Obura, 2005; Rowan, 2004). Adaptation or acclimatisation might result in an
increase in the threshold temperature at which bleaching occurs (Figure 6.3b). The extent to which the thermal threshold could
increase with warming of more than a couple of degrees remains very uncertain, as are the effects of additional stresses, such
as reduced carbonate supersaturation in surface waters (see Box 4.4) and non-climate stresses (see Box 16.2). Corals and other
calcifying organisms (e.g., molluscs, foraminifers) remain extremely susceptible to increases in SST. Bleaching events reported
in recent years have already impacted many reefs, and their more frequent recurrence is very likely to further reduce both coral
cover and diversity on reefs over the next few decades.
Figure 6.3. Alternative hypotheses concerning the threshold SST at which coral bleaching occurs; a) invariant threshold for coral bleaching
(red line) which occurs when SST exceeds usual seasonal maximum threshold (by ~1°C) and mortality (dashed red line, threshold of 2°C), with
local variation due to different species or water depth; b) elevated threshold for bleaching (green line) and mortality (dashed green line) where
corals adapt or acclimatise to increased SST (based on Hughes et al., 2003).
This section builds on Chapter 2 and Section 6.2 to develop
relevant environmental, socio-economic, and climate change
scenarios for coastal areas through the 21st century. The IPCC
Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES; Nakićenović and
Swart, 2000) provides one suitable framework (Arnell et al.,
2004; Chapter 2, Section 2.4).
National coastal socio-economic scenarios have also been
developed for policy analysis, including links to appropriate
climate change scenarios. Examples include the UK Foresight
Flood and Coastal Defence analysis (Evans et al., 2004a,b;
Thorne et al., 2006), and the US National Assessment (NAST,
2000), while model-based methods have been applied to
socio-economic futures in the Ebro delta, Spain (Otter, 2000;
Otter et al., 2001). However, socio-economic scenarios of
coastal areas are underdeveloped relative to climate and sealevel scenarios.
6.3 Assumptions about future trends for
coastal systems and low-lying areas
Environmental and socio-economic trends
In the SRES, four families of socio-economic scenarios (A1,
A2, B1 and B2) represent different world futures in two distinct
dimensions: a focus on economic versus environmental
concerns, and global versus regional development patterns. In
all four cases, global gross domestic product (GDP) increases
substantially and there is economic convergence at differing
rates. Global population also increases to 2050 but, in the A1/B1
futures, the population subsequently declines, while in A2/B2 it
continues to grow throughout the 21st century (see Chapter 2,
Box 2.2). Relevant trends for coastal areas under the SRES
scenarios are described in Table 6.1.
In terms of climate change, the SRES scenarios in Section
6.3.1 translate into six greenhouse-gas emission ‘marker’
scenarios: one each for the A2, B1 and B2 worlds, and three
scenarios for the A1 world – A1T (non-fossil fuel sources), A1B
(balanced fuel sources) and A1FI (fossil-intensive fuel sources)
(Nakićenović and Swart, 2000). B1 produces the lowest
emissions and A1FI produces the highest emissions (see
Chapter 2).
Table 6.2 summarises the range of potential drivers of climate
change impacts in coastal areas, including the results from
Meehl et al. (2007) and Christensen et al. (2007). In most cases
A clade of algae is a group of closely related, but nevertheless different, types.
Climate and sea-level scenarios
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
there will be significant regional variations in the changes, and
any impacts will be the result of the interaction between these
climate change drivers and other drivers of change, leading to
diverse effects and vulnerabilities (Sections 6.2 and 6.4).
Understanding of the relevant climate-change drivers for
coastal areas has improved since the TAR. Projected global
mean changes under the SRES scenarios are summarised in
Table 6.3. As atmospheric CO2 levels increase, more CO2 is
absorbed by surface waters, decreasing seawater pH and
carbonate saturation (Andersson et al., 2003; Royal Society,
2005; Turley et al., 2006). A significant increase in atmospheric
CO2 concentration appears virtually certain (Table 6.3). Sea
surface temperatures are also virtually certain to rise
significantly (Table 6.3), although less than the global mean
temperature rise. The rise will not be spatially uniform, with
possible intensification of ENSO and time variability which
suggests greater change in extremes with important implications
for coral reefs (Box 6.1).
Table 6.1. Selected global non-climatic environmental and socio-economic trends relevant to coastal areas for the SRES storylines. Regional and
local deviations are expected.
Environmental and socio-economic factors
Non-climatic changes and trends for coastal and low-lying areas (by SRES Future)
‘A1 World’
‘A2 World’
‘B1 World’
‘B2 World’
1.8 to 2.4
3.2 to 5.2
1.8 to 2.4
2.3 to 3.4
Population (2080s) (billions)a
Coastward migration
Most likely
Human-induced subsidence
Less likely
More likely
Large reduction
Smallest reduction
More likely
Terrestrial freshwater/sediment supply
(due to catchment management)
Greatest reduction
Aquaculture growth
Infrastructure growth
Less likely
Large increase
Extractive industries
Adaptation response
Hazard risk management
Habitat conservation
Least likely
More reactive
Lower priority
Low priority
Smaller reduction
Smaller increase
More proactive
Higher priority
High priority
Population living both below 100 m elevation above sea level and within 100 km distance of the coast – uncertainty depends on assumptions
about coastward migration (Nicholls, 2004).
Subsidence due to sub-surface fluid withdrawal and drainage of organic soils in susceptible coastal lowlands.
Tourism growth
Table 6.2. Main climate drivers for coastal systems (Figure 6.1), their trends due to climate change, and their main physical and ecosystem effects.
(Trend: ↑ increase; ? uncertain; R regional variability).
Climate driver (trend)
CO2 concentration (↑)
Sea surface temperature (↑, R)
Main physical and ecosystem effects on coastal systems (discussed in Section 6.4.1)
Increased CO2 fertilisation; decreased seawater pH (or ‘ocean acidification’) negatively impacting coral reefs
and other pH sensitive organisms.
Increased stratification/changed circulation; reduced incidence of sea ice at higher latitudes; increased coral
bleaching and mortality (see Box 6.1); poleward species migration; increased algal blooms
Sea level (↑, R)
Inundation, flood and storm damage (see Box 6.2); erosion; saltwater intrusion; rising water tables/impeded
drainage; wetland loss (and change).
Storm intensity (↑, R)
Increased extreme water levels and wave heights; increased episodic erosion, storm damage, risk of flooding
and defence failure (see Box 6.2).
Storm frequency (?, R)
Storm track (?, R)
Wave climate (?, R)
Altered surges and storm waves and hence risk of storm damage and flooding (see Box 6.2).
Run-off (R)
Altered flood risk in coastal lowlands; altered water quality/salinity; altered fluvial sediment supply; altered
circulation and nutrient supply.
Altered wave conditions, including swell; altered patterns of erosion and accretion; re-orientation of beach plan
Table 6.3. Projected global mean climate parameters relevant to coastal areas at the end of the 21st century for the six SRES marker scenarios
(from Meehl et al., 2007).
Climate driver
Surface ocean pH (baseline today: 8.1)
SST rise (°C) (relative to 1980-1999)
Sea-level rise
(relative to
Best estimate (m)
Range (m)
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
The global mean sea-level rise scenarios (Table 6.3) are
based on thermal expansion and ice melt; the best estimate
shows an acceleration of up to 2.4 times compared to the 20th
century. These projections are smaller than those of Church et
al. (2001), reflecting improved understanding, especially of
estimates of ocean heat uptake. If recently observed increases
in ice discharge rates from the Greenland and Antarctic ice
sheets were to increase linearly with global mean temperature
change, this would add a 0.05 to 0.11 m rise for the A1FI
scenario over the 21st century (Meehl et al., 2007). (Large and
long-term sea-level rise beyond 2100 is considered in Box 6.6.)
Importantly, local (or relative) changes in sea level depart
from the global mean trend due to regional variations in
oceanic level change and geological uplift/subsidence; it is
relative sea-level change that drives impacts and is of concern
to coastal managers (Nicholls and Klein, 2005; Harvey,
2006a). Meehl et al. (2007) found that regional sea-level
change will depart significantly from the global mean trends in
Table 6.3: for the A1B scenario the spatial standard deviation
by the 2080s is 0.08 m, with a larger rise than average in the
Arctic. While there is currently insufficient understanding to
develop detailed scenarios, Hulme et al. (2002) suggested that
impact analysis should explore additional sea-level rise
scenarios of +50% the amount of global mean rise, plus
uplift/subsidence, to assess the full range of possible change.
Although this approach has been followed in the UK (Pearson
et al., 2005; Thorne et al., 2006), its application elsewhere is
limited to date.
Furthermore, coasts subsiding due to natural or humaninduced causes will experience larger relative rises in sea level
(Bird, 2000). In some locations, such as deltas and coastal
cities, this effect can be significant (Dixon et al., 2006; Ericson
et al., 2006).
Increases of extreme sea levels due to rises in mean sea
level and/or changes in storm characteristics (Table 6.2) are of
widespread concern (Box 6.2). Meehl et al. (2007) found that
models suggest both tropical and extra-tropical storm intensity
will increase. This implies additional coastal impacts than
attributable to sea-level rise alone, especially for tropical and
mid-latitude coastal systems. Increases in tropical cyclone
intensity over the past three decades are consistent with the
observed changes in SST (Emanuel, 2005; Webster et al.,
2005). Changes in other storm characteristics are less certain
and the number of tropical and extra-tropical storms might
even reduce (Meehl et al., 2007). Similarly, future wave
climate is uncertain, although extreme wave heights will
likely increase with more intense storms (Meehl et al., 2007).
Changes in runoff driven by changes to the hydrological cycle
appear likely, but the uncertainties are large. Milly et al.
(2005) showed increased discharges to coastal waters in the
Arctic, in northern Argentina and southern Brazil, parts of the
Indian sub-continent, China and Australia, while reduced
discharges to coastal waters are suggested in southern
Argentina and Chile, Western and Southern Africa, and in the
Mediterranean Basin. The additional effects of catchment
management also need to be considered (Table 6.1).
Chapter 6
6.4 Key future impacts and vulnerabilities
The following sections characterise the coastal ecosystem
impacts that are anticipated to result from the climate change
summarised in Figures 6.1 and Table 6.2. The summary of
impacts on natural coastal systems and implications for human
society (including ecosystem services) leads to the recognition
of key vulnerabilities and hotspots.
Natural system responses to climate change
drivers Beaches, rocky shorelines and cliffed coasts
Most of the world’s sandy shorelines retreated during the past
century (Bird, 1985; NRC, 1990; Leatherman, 2001; Eurosion,
2004) and sea-level rise is one underlying cause (see Section 6.2.5
and Chapter 1, Section 1.3.3). One half or more of the Mississippi
and Texas shorelines have eroded at average rates of 3.1 to 2.6
m/yr since the 1970s, while 90% of the Louisiana shoreline eroded
at a rate of 12.0 m/yr (Morton et al., 2004). In Nigeria, retreat rates
up to 30 m/yr are reported (Okude and Ademiluyi, 2006). Coastal
squeeze and steepening are also widespread as illustrated along
the eastern coast of the United Kingdom where 67% of the
coastline experienced a landward retreat of the low-water mark
over the past century (Taylor et al., 2004).
An acceleration in sea-level rise will widely exacerbate beach
erosion around the globe (Brown and McLachlan, 2002),
although the local response will depend on the total sediment
budget (Stive et al., 2002; Cowell et al., 2003a,b). The widely
cited Bruun (1962) model suggests that shoreline recession is in
the range 50 to 200 times the rise in relative sea level. While
supported by field data in ideal circumstances (Zhang et al.,
2004), wider application of the Bruun model remains
controversial (Komar, 1998; Cooper and Pilkey, 2004;
Davidson-Arnott, 2005). An indirect, less-frequently examined
influence of sea-level rise on the beach sediment budget is due
to the infilling of coastal embayments. As sea-level rises,
estuaries and lagoons attempt to maintain equilibrium by raising
their bed elevation in tandem, and hence potentially act as a
major sink of sand which is often derived from the open coast
(van Goor et al., 2001; van Goor et al., 2003; Stive, 2004). This
process can potentially cause erosion an order of magnitude or
more greater than that predicted by the Bruun model
(Woodworth et al., 2004), implying the potential for major
coastal instability due to sea-level rise in the vicinity of tidal
inlets. Several recent studies indicate that beach protection
strategies and changes in the behaviour or frequency of storms
can be more important than the projected acceleration of sealevel rise in determining future beach erosion rates (Ahrendt,
2001; Leont’yev, 2003). Thus there is not a simple relationship
between sea-level rise and horizontal movement of the shoreline,
and sediment budget approaches are most useful to assess beach
response to climate change (Cowell et al., 2006).
The combined effects of beach erosion and storms can lead to
the erosion or inundation of other coastal systems. For example,
an increase in wave heights in coastal bays is a secondary effect
of sandy barrier island erosion in Louisiana, and increased wave
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Box 6.2. Examples of extreme water level simulations for impact studies
Although inundation by increases in mean sea level over the
21st century and beyond will be a problem for unprotected
low-lying areas, the most devastating impacts are likely to be
associated with changes in extreme sea levels resulting from
the passage of storms (e.g., Gornitz et al., 2002), especially as
more intense tropical and extra-tropical storms are expected
(Meehl et al., 2007). Simulations show that future changes are
likely to be spatially variable, and a high level of detail can be
modelled (see also Box 11.5 in Christensen et al. (2007).
Figure 6.4. Increases in the height (m) of the 50-year extreme water
level. (a) In the northern Bay of Bengal under the IS92a climate
scenario in 2040-2060 (K – Kolkata (Calcutta), C – Chittagong)
(adapted from Mitchell et al., 2006). (b) Around the UK for the A2
scenario in the 2080s (L – London; H – Hamburg) (adapted from
Lowe and Gregory, 2005).
heights have enhanced erosion rates of bay shorelines, tidal
creeks and adjacent wetlands (Stone and McBride, 1998; Stone
et al., 2003). The impacts of accelerated sea-level rise on gravel
beaches have received less attention than sandy beaches. These
systems are threatened by sea-level rise (Orford et al., 2001,
2003; Chadwick et al., 2005), even under high accretion rates
(Codignotto et al., 2001). The persistence of gravel and cobbleboulder beaches will also be influenced by storms, tectonic
Figures 6.4 and 6.5 are based on barotropic surge models
driven by climate change projections for two flood-prone
regions. In the northern Bay of Bengal, simulated changes in
storminess cause changes in extreme water levels. When
added to consistent relative sea-level rise scenarios, these
result in increases in extreme water levels across the Bay,
especially near Kolkata (Figure 6.4a). Around the UK, extreme
high sea levels also occur. The largest change near London
has important implications for flood defence (Figure 6.4b;
Dawson et al., 2005; Lavery and Donovan, 2005). Figure 6.5
shows the change in flooding due to climate change for
Cairns (Australia). It is based on a combination of stochastic
sampling and dynamic modelling. This assumes a 10%
increase in tropical cyclone intensity, implying more flooding
than sea-level rise alone would suggest. However, detailed
patterns and magnitudes of changes in extreme water levels
remain uncertain (e.g., Lowe and Gregory, 2005); better
quantification of this uncertainty and further field validation
would support wider application of such scenarios.
Figure 6.5. Flooding around Cairns, Australia during the >100 year
return-period event under current and 2050 climate conditions
based on a 2xCO2 scenario. The road network is shown in black
(based on McInnes et al., 2003).
events and other factors that build and reshape these highly
dynamic shorelines (Orford et al., 2001).
Since the TAR, monitoring, modelling and process-oriented
research have revealed some important differences in cliff
vulnerability and the mechanics by which groundwater, wave
climate and other climate factors influence cliff erosion patterns
and rates. Hard rock cliffs have a relatively high resistance to
erosion, while cliffs formed in softer lithologies are likely to retreat
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
more rapidly in the future due to increased toe erosion resulting
from sea-level rise (Cooper and Jay, 2002). Cliff failure and retreat
may be amplified in many areas by increased precipitation and
higher groundwater levels: examples include UK, Argentina and
France (Hosking and McInnes, 2002; Codignotto, 2004b; Pierre
and Lahousse, 2006). Relationships between cliff retreat, freezethaw cycles and air temperature records have also been described
(Hutchinson, 1998). Hence, four physical features of climate
change – temperature, precipitation, sea level and wave climate –
can affect the stability of soft rock cliffs.
Soft rock cliff retreat is usually episodic with many metres
of cliff top retreat occurring locally in a single event, followed
by relative quiescence for significant periods (Brunsden, 2001;
Eurosion, 2004). Considerable progress has been made in the
long-term prediction of cliff-top, shore profile and plan-shape
evolution of soft rock coastlines by simulating the relevant
physical processes and their interactions (Hall et al., 2002;
Trenhaile, 2002, 2004). An application of the SCAPE (Soft Cliff
and Platform Erosion) model (Dickson et al., 2005; Walkden and
Hall, 2005) to part of Norfolk, UK has indicated that rates of
cliff retreat are sensitive to sea-level rise, changes in wave
conditions and sediment supply via longshore transport. For soft
cliff areas with limited beach development, there appears to be
a simple relationship between long-term cliff retreat and the rate
of sea-level rise (Walkden and Dickson, 2006), allowing useful
predictions for planning purposes. Deltas
Deltaic landforms are naturally shaped by a combination of
river, wave and tide processes. River-dominated deltas receiving
fluvial sediment input show prominent levees and channels that
meander or avulse2, leaving abandoned channels on the coastal
plains. Wave-dominated deltas are characterised by shore-parallel
sand ridges, often coalescing into beach-ridge plains. Tide
domination is indicated by exponentially tapering channels, with
funnel-shaped mouths. Delta plains contain a diverse range of
landforms but, at any time, only part of a delta is active, and this
is usually river-dominated, whereas the abandoned delta plain
receives little river flow and is progressively dominated by marine
processes (Woodroffe, 2003).
Human development patterns also influence the differential
vulnerability of deltas to the effects of climate change. Sediment
starvation due to dams, alterations in tidal flow patterns,
navigation and flood control works are common consequences
of human activity (Table 6.1). Changes in surface water runoff
and sediment loads can greatly affect the ability of a delta to
cope with the physical impacts of climatic change. For example,
in the subsiding Mississippi River deltaic plain of south-east
Louisiana, sediment starvation and increases in the salinity and
water levels of coastal marshes due to human development
occurred so rapidly that 1565 km2 of intertidal coastal marshes
and adjacent lands were converted to open water between 1978
and 2000 (Barras et al., 2003). By 2050 about 1300 km2 of
additional coastal land loss is projected if current global, regional
and local processes continue; the projected acceleration of sea
level and increase in tropical storm intensity (Section 6.3.2) would
Chapter 6
exacerbate these losses (Barras et al., 2003). Much of this land
loss is episodic, as demonstrated during the landfall of Hurricane
Katrina (Box 6.4).
Deltas have long been recognised as highly sensitive to sealevel rise (Ericson et al., 2006; Woodroffe et al., 2006) (Box 6.3).
Rates of relative sea-level rise can greatly exceed the global
average in many heavily populated deltaic areas due to
subsidence, including the Chao Phraya delta (Saito, 2001),
Mississippi River delta (Burkett et al., 2003) and the Changjiang
River delta (Liu, 2002; Waltham, 2002), because of human
activities. Natural subsidence due to autocompaction of sediment
under its own weight is enhanced by sub-surface fluid
withdrawals and drainage (Table 6.1). This increases the potential
for inundation, especially for the most populated cities on these
deltaic plains (i.e., Bangkok, New Orleans and Shanghai). Most of
the land area of Bangladesh consists of the deltaic plains of the
Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. Accelerated global sealevel rise and higher extreme water levels (Box 6.2) may have
acute effects on human populations of Bangladesh (and parts of
West Bengal, India) because of the complex relationships between
observed trends in SST over the Bay of Bengal and monsoon rains
(Singh, 2001), subsidence and human activity that has converted
natural coastal defences (mangroves) to aquaculture (Woodroffe
et al., 2006).
Whereas present rates of sea-level rise are contributing to the
gradual diminution of many of the world’s deltas, most recent
losses of deltaic wetlands are attributed to human development.
An analysis of satellite images of fourteen of the world’s major
deltas (Danube, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Mahanadi,
Mangoky, McKenzie, Mississippi, Niger, Nile, Shatt el Arab,
Volga, Huanghe, Yukon and Zambezi) indicated a total loss of
15,845 km2 of deltaic wetlands over the past 14 years (Coleman
et al., 2005). Every delta showed land loss, but at varying rates,
and human development activities accounted for over half of the
losses. In Asia, for example, where human activities have led to
increased sediment loads of major rivers in the past, the
construction of upstream dams is now seriously depleting the
supply of sediments to many deltas with increased coastal erosion
a widespread consequence (see Chapter 10, Section As
an example, large reservoirs constructed on the Huanghe River in
China have reduced the annual sediment delivered to its delta from
1.1 billion metric tons to 0.4 billion metric tons (Li et al., 2004).
Human influence is likely to continue to increase throughout Asia
and globally (Section 6.2.2; Table 6.1).
Sea-level rise poses a particular threat to deltaic environments,
especially with the synergistic effects of other climate and human
pressures (e.g., Sánchez-Arcilla et al., 2007). These issues are
especially noteworthy in many of the largest deltas with an
indicative area >104 km2 (henceforth megadeltas) due to their
often large populations and important environmental services. The
problems of climate change in megadeltas are reflected throughout
this report, with a number of chapters considering these issues
from complementary perspectives. Box 6.3 considers the
vulnerability of delta systems across the globe, and concludes that
the large populated Asian megadeltas are especially vulnerable to
climate change. Chapter 10, Section 10.6.1 builds on this global
Avulse: when a river changes its course from one channel to another as a result of a flood.
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Box 6.3. Deltas and megadeltas: hotspots for vulnerability
Deltas, some of the largest sedimentary deposits in the world, are widely recognised as highly vulnerable to the impacts of
climate change, particularly sea-level rise and changes in runoff, as well as being subject to stresses imposed by human
modification of catchment and delta plain land use. Most deltas are already undergoing natural subsidence that results in
accelerated rates of relative sea-level rise above the global average. Many are impacted by the effects of water extraction and
diversion, as well as declining sediment input as a consequence of entrapment in dams. Delta plains, particularly those in Asia
(Chapter 10, Section 10.6.1), are densely populated and large numbers of people are often impacted as a result of external
terrestrial influences (river floods, sediment starvation) and/or external marine influences (storm surges, erosion) (see Figure 6.1).
Ericson et al. (2006) estimated that nearly 300 million people inhabit a sample of 40 deltas globally, including all the large
megadeltas. Average population density is 500 people/km2 with the largest population in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, and
the highest density in the Nile delta. Many of these deltas and megadeltas are associated with significant and expanding urban
areas. Ericson et al. (2006) used a generalised modelling approach to approximate the effective rate of sea-level rise under
present conditions, basing estimates of sediment trapping and flow diversion on a global dam database, and modifying estimates
of natural subsidence to incorporate accelerated human-induced subsidence. This analysis showed that much of the population
of these 40 deltas is at risk through coastal erosion and land loss, primarily as a result of decreased sediment delivery by the
rivers, but also through accentuated rates of sea-level rise. They estimate, using a coarse digital terrain model and global
population distribution data, that more than 1 million people will be directly affected by 2050 in three megadeltas: the GangesBrahmaputra delta in Bangladesh, the Mekong delta in Vietnam and the Nile delta in Egypt. More than 50,000 people are likely
to be directly impacted in each of a further 9 deltas, and more than 5,000 in each of a further 12 deltas (Figure 6.6). This
generalised modelling approach indicates that 75% of the population affected live on Asian megadeltas and deltas, and a large
proportion of the remainder are on deltas in Africa. These impacts would be exacerbated by accelerated sea-level rise and
enhanced human pressures (e.g., Chapter 10, Section 10.6.1). Within the Asian megadeltas, the surface topography is complex
as a result of the geomorphological development of the deltas, and the population distribution shows considerable spatial
variability, reflecting the intensive land use and the growth of some of the world’s largest megacities (Woodroffe et al., 2006). Many
people in these and other deltas worldwide are already subject to flooding from both storm surges and seasonal river floods,
and therefore it is necessary to develop further methods to assess individual delta vulnerability (e.g., Sánchez-Arcilla et al.,
Figure 6.6. Relative vulnerability of coastal deltas as shown by the indicative population potentially displaced by current sea-level trends to
2050 (Extreme = >1 million; High = 1 million to 50,000; Medium = 50,000 to 5,000; following Ericson et al., 2006).
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
view and examines the Asian megadeltas in more detail. Chapter
5, Box 5.3 considers the threats to fisheries in the lower Mekong
and associated delta due to climate change. Hurricane Katrina
made landfall on the Mississippi delta in Louisiana, and Box 6.4
and Chapter 7, Box 7.4 consider different aspects of this important
event, which gives an indication of the likely impacts if tropical
storm intensity continues to increase. Lastly, Section 15.6.2
considers the specific problems of Arctic megadeltas. Estuaries and lagoons
Global mean sea-level rise will generally lead to higher
relative coastal water levels and increasing salinity in estuarine
systems, thereby tending to displace existing coastal plant and
animal communities inland. Estuarine plant and animal
communities may persist as sea level rises if migration is not
blocked and if the rate of change does not exceed the capacity of
natural communities to adapt or migrate. Climate change
impacts on one or more ‘leverage species’, however, can result
in sweeping community level changes (Harley et al., 2006).
Some of the greatest potential impacts of climate change on
estuaries may result from changes in physical mixing
characteristics caused by changes in freshwater runoff (Scavia et
al., 2002). A globally intensified hydrologic cycle and regional
changes in runoff all portend changes in coastal water quality
(Section 6.3.2). Freshwater inflows into estuaries influence
water residence time, nutrient delivery, vertical stratification,
salinity and control of phytoplankton growth rates. Increased
freshwater inflows decrease water residence time and increase
vertical stratification, and vice versa (Moore et al., 1997). The
effects of altered residence times can have significant effects on
phytoplankton populations, which have the potential to increase
fourfold per day. Consequently, in estuaries with very short
water residence times, phytoplankton are generally flushed from
the system as fast as they can grow, reducing the estuary’s
susceptibility to eutrophication3 and harmful algal blooms
(HABs) (Section Changes in the timing of freshwater
delivery to estuaries could lead to a decoupling of the juvenile
phases of many estuarine and marine fishery species from the
available nursery habitat. In some hypersaline lagoonal systems,
such as the Laguna Madre of Mexico and Texas, sea-level rise
will increase water depths, leading to increased tidal exchange
and hence reduced salinity (cf. Quammen and Onuf, 1993).
Increased water temperature could also affect algal
production and the availability of light, oxygen and carbon for
other estuarine species (Short and Neckles, 1999). The
propensity for HABs is further enhanced by the fertilisation
effect of increasing dissolved CO2 levels. Increased water
temperature also affects important microbial processes such as
nitrogen fixation and denitrification in estuaries (Lomas et al.,
2002). Water temperature regulates oxygen and carbonate
solubility, viral pestilence, pH and conductivity, and
photosynthesis and respiration rates of estuarine macrophytes4.
While temperature is important in regulating physiological
processes in estuaries (Lomas et al., 2002), predicting the
ecological outcome is complicated by the feedbacks and
Chapter 6
interactions among temperature change and independent
physical and biogeochemical processes such as eutrophication
(cf. Section 6.2.4).
Decreased seawater pH and carbonate saturation (Mackenzie
et al., 2001; Caldeira and Wickett, 2005) has at least two
important consequences: the potential for reducing the ability of
carbonate flora and fauna to calcify; and the potential for
enhanced dissolution of nutrients and carbonate minerals in
sediments (Andersson et al., 2003; Royal Society, 2005; Turley
et al., 2006). As these potential impacts could be significant, it
is important to improve understanding of them.
The landward transgression of natural estuarine shorelines as
sea level rises has been summarised by Pethick (2001), who
adopted a mass balance approach based on an equilibrium
assumption resulting in landward retreat of the entire estuarine
system. In this view, sea level rise of 6 mm causes 10 m of
retreat of the Blackwater estuary, UK, and only 8 m of retreat for
the Humber estuary, UK, due to the steeper gradient of the latter.
The Humber estuary will also likely experience a deepening of
the main channel, changes in tidal regime and larger waves that
will promote further erosion around the margins (Winn et al.,
2003). In Venice Lagoon, Italy, the combination of sea-level rise,
altered sediment dynamics, and geological land subsidence has
lowered the lagoon floor, widened tidal inlets, submerged tidal
flats and islands, and caused the shoreline to retreat around the
lagoon circumference (Fletcher and Spencer, 2005). In situations
where the area of intertidal environments has been reduced by
embanking or reclamation, the initial response will be a lowering
of remaining tidal flats and infilling of tidal channels. Depending
on tidal characteristics, the availability of marine sediment, and
the rate of sea-level rise, the remaining tidal flats may either be
further drowned, or their relative level in the tidal frame may be
maintained, as shown by several tidal basins in the Dutch
Wadden Sea (Dronkers, 2005).
A projected increase in the intensity of tropical cyclones and
other coastal storms (Section 6.3.2) could alter bottom sediment
dynamics, organic matter inputs, phytoplankton and fisheries
populations, salinity and oxygen levels, and biogeochemical
processes in estuaries (Paerl et al., 2001). The role of powerful
storms in structuring estuarine sediments and biodiversity is
illustrated in the stratigraphic record of massive, episodic estuary
infilling of Bohai Bay, China during the Holocene, with
alternating oyster reefs and thick mud deposits (Wang and Fan,
2005). Mangroves, saltmarshes and sea grasses
Coastal vegetated wetlands are sensitive to climate change
and long-term sea-level change as their location is intimately
linked to sea level. Modelling of all coastal wetlands (but
excluding sea grasses) by McFadden et al. (2007a) suggests
global losses from 2000 to 2080 of 33% and 44% given a 36 cm
and 72 cm rise in sea level, respectively. Regionally, losses
would be most severe on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts
of North and Central America, the Caribbean, the
Mediterranean, the Baltic and most small island regions due to
Eutrophication: over-enrichment of a water body with nutrients, resulting in excessive growth of organisms and depletion of oxygen concentration.
Macrophytes: aquatic plants large enough to be visible to the naked eye.
Chapter 6
their low tidal range (Nicholls, 2004). However, wetland
processes are complex, and Cahoon et al. (2006) developed a
broad regional to global geographical model relating wetland
accretion, elevation, and shallow subsidence in different plate
tectonic, climatic and geomorphic settings for both temperate
saltmarshes and tropical mangrove forests. Changes in storm
intensity can also affect vegetated coastal wetlands. Cahoon et
al. (2003) analysed the elevation responses from a variety of
hurricane-influenced coastal settings and found that a storm can
simultaneously influence both surface and subsurface soil
processes, but with much variability.
Saltmarshes (halophytic grasses, sedges, rushes and
succulents) are common features of temperate depositional
coastlines. Hydrology and energy regimes are two key factors
that influence the coastal zonation of the plant species which
typically grade inland from salt, to brackish, to freshwater
species. Climate change will likely have its most pronounced
effects on brackish and freshwater marshes in the coastal zone
through alteration of hydrological regimes (Burkett and Kusler,
2000; Baldwin et al., 2001; Sun et al., 2002), specifically, the
nature and variability of hydroperiod and the number and
severity of extreme events. Other variables – altered
biogeochemistry, altered amounts and pattern of suspended
sediments loading, fire, oxidation of organic sediments, and the
physical effects of wave energy – may also play important roles
in determining regional and local impacts.
Sea-level rise does not necessarily lead to loss of saltmarsh
areas, especially where there are significant tides, because these
marshes accrete vertically and maintain their elevation relative
to sea level where the supply of sediment is sufficient (Hughes,
2004; Cahoon et al., 2006). The threshold at which wetlands
drown varies widely depending upon local morphodynamic
processes. Saltmarshes of some mesotidal and high tide range
estuaries (e.g., Tagus estuary, Portugal) are susceptible to sealevel rise only in a worst-case scenario. Similarly, wetlands with
high sediment inputs in the south-east United States would
remain stable relative to sea level unless the rate of sea-level rise
accelerates to nearly four times its current rate (Morris et al.,
2002). Yet, even sediment inputs from frequently recurring
hurricanes cannot compensate for subsidence effects combined
with predicted accelerations in sea-level rise in rapidly subsiding
marshes of the Mississippi River delta (Rybczyk and Cahoon,
Mangrove forests dominate intertidal subtropical and tropical
coastlines between 25ºN and 25ºS latitude. Mangrove
communities are likely to show a blend of positive responses to
climate change, such as enhanced growth resulting from higher
levels of CO2 and temperature, as well as negative impacts, such
as increased saline intrusion and erosion, largely depending on
site-specific factors (Saenger, 2002). The response of coastal
forested wetlands to climate change has not received the detailed
research and modelling that has been directed towards the
saltmarsh coasts of North America (Morris et al., 2002; Reed,
2002; Rybczyk and Cahoon, 2002) and north-west Europe (Allen,
2000, 2003). Nevertheless, it seems highly likely that similar
principles are in operation and that the sedimentary response of the
shoreline is a function of both the availability of sediment (Walsh
and Nittrouer, 2004) and the ability of the organic production by
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
mangroves themselves to fill accommodation space provided by
sea-level rise (Simas et al., 2001). Mangroves are able to produce
root material that builds up the substrate beneath them (Middleton
and McKee, 2001; Jennerjahn and Ittekkot, 2002), but collapse of
peat occurs rapidly in the absence of new root growth, as observed
after Hurricane Mitch (Cahoon et al., 2003) and after lightning
strikes (Sherman et al., 2000). Groundwater levels play an
important role in the elevation of mangrove soils by processes
affecting soil shrink and swell. Hence, the influence of hydrology
should be considered when evaluating the effect of disturbances,
sea-level rise and water management decisions on mangrove
systems (Whelan et al., 2005). A global assessment of mangrove
accretion rates by Saenger (2002) indicates that vertical accretion
is variable but commonly approaches 5 mm/yr. However, many
mangrove shorelines are subsiding and thus experiencing a more
rapid relative sea-level rise (Cahoon et al., 2003).
A landward migration of mangroves into adjacent wetland
communities has been recorded in the Florida Everglades during
the past 50 years (Ross et al., 2000), apparently responding to
sea-level rise over that period. Mangroves have extended
landward into saltmarsh over the past five decades throughout
south-east Australia, but the influence of sea-level rise in this
region is considered minor compared to that of human
disturbance (Saintilan and Williams, 1999) and land surface
subsidence (Rogers et al., 2005, 2006). Rapid expansion of tidal
creeks has been observed in northern Australia (Finlayson and
Eliot, 2001; Hughes, 2003). Sea-level rise and salt water
intrusion have been identified as a causal factor in the decline of
coastal bald cypress (Taxodium disticum) forests in Louisiana
(Krauss et al., 2000; Melillo et al., 2000) and die off of cabbage
palm (Sabal palmetto) forests in coastal Florida (Williams et al.,
1999, 2003).
On balance, coastal wetlands will decline with rising sea
levels and other climate and human pressures (reduced sediment
inputs, coastal squeeze constraints on landward migration, etc.)
will tend to exacerbate these losses. However, the processes
shaping these environments are complex and while our
understanding has improved significantly over the last 10 years,
it remains far from complete. Continued work on the basic
science and its application to future prognosis at local, regional
and global scales remains a priority (Cahoon et al., 2006;
McFadden et al., 2007a).
Sea grasses appear to be declining around many coasts due to
human impacts, and this is expected to accelerate if climate
change alters environmental conditions in coastal waters
(Duarte, 2002). Changes in salinity and temperature and
increased sea level, atmospheric CO2, storm activity and
ultraviolet irradiance alter sea grass distribution, productivity
and community composition (Short and Neckles, 1999).
Increases in the amount of dissolved CO2 and, for some species,
HCO3 present in aquatic environments, will lead to higher rates
of photosynthesis in submerged aquatic vegetation, similar to
the effects of CO2 enrichment on most terrestrial plants, if
nutrient availability or other limiting factors do not offset the
potential for enhanced productivity. Increases in growth and
biomass with elevated CO2 have been observed for the sea grass
Z. marina (Zimmerman et al., 1997). Algae growth in lagoons
and estuaries may also respond positively to elevated dissolved
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
inorganic carbon (DIC), though marine macroalgae do not
appear to be limited by DIC levels (Beer and Koch, 1996). An
increase in epiphytic or suspended algae would decrease light
available to submerged aquatic vegetation in estuarine and
lagoonal systems. Coral reefs
Reef-building corals are under stress on many coastlines (see
Chapter 1, Section Reefs have deteriorated as a result of
a combination of anthropogenic impacts such as overfishing and
pollution from adjacent land masses (Pandolfi et al., 2003; Graham
et al., 2006), together with an increased frequency and severity of
bleaching associated with climate change (Box 6.1). The relative
significance of these stresses varies from site to site. Coral
mortality on Caribbean reefs is generally related to recent disease
outbreaks, variations in herbivory5, and hurricanes (Gardner et al.,
2003; McWilliams et al., 2005), whereas Pacific reefs have been
particularly impacted by episodes of coral bleaching caused by
thermal stress anomalies especially during recent El Niño events
(Hughes et al., 2003), as well as non-climate stresses.
Mass coral bleaching events are clearly correlated with rises
of SST of short duration above summer maxima (Douglas, 2003;
Lesser, 2004; McWilliams et al., 2005). Particularly extensive
bleaching was recorded across the Indian Ocean region associated
with extreme El Niño conditions in 1998 (Box 6.1 and Chapter 11,
Section 11.6: Climate change and the Great Barrier Reef case
study). Many reefs appear to have experienced similar SST
conditions earlier in the 20th century and it is unclear how
extensive bleaching was before widespread reporting post-1980
(Barton and Casey, 2005). There is limited ecological and genetic
evidence for adaptation of corals to warmer conditions (Boxes 4.4
and 6.1). It is very likely that projected future increases in SST of
about 1 to 3°C (Section 6.3.2) will result in more frequent
bleaching events and widespread mortality, if there is not thermal
adaptation or acclimatisation by corals and their symbionts
(Sheppard, 2003; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2004). The ability of coral
reef ecosystems to withstand the impacts of climate change will
depend on the extent of degradation from other anthropogenic
pressures and the frequency of future bleaching events (Donner et
al., 2005).
In addition to coral bleaching, there are other threats to reefs
associated with climate change (Kleypas and Langdon, 2002).
Increased concentrations of CO2 in seawater will lead to ocean
acidification (Section 6.3.2), affecting aragonite saturation state
(Meehl et al., 2007) and reducing calcification rates of calcifying
organisms such as corals (LeClerq et al., 2002; Guinotte et al.,
2003; Chapter 4, Box 4.4). Cores from long-lived massive corals
indicate past minor variations in calcification (Lough and Barnes,
2000), but disintegration of degraded reefs following bleaching
or reduced calcification may result in increased wave energy
across reef flats with potential for shoreline erosion (Sheppard et
al., 2005). Relative sea-level rise appears unlikely to threaten reefs
in the next few decades; coral reefs have been shown to keep pace
with rapid postglacial sea-level rise when not subjected to
environmental or anthropogenic stresses (Hallock, 2005). A slight
rise in sea level is likely to result in submergence of some Indo5
Herbivory: the consumption of plants by animals.
Chapter 6
Pacific reef flats and recolonisation by corals, as these intertidal
surfaces, presently emerged at low tide, become suitable for coral
growth (Buddemeier et al., 2004).
Many reefs are affected by tropical cyclones (hurricanes,
typhoons); impacts range from minor breakage of fragile corals to
destruction of the majority of corals on a reef and deposition of
debris as coarse storm ridges. Such storms represent major
perturbations, affecting species composition and abundance, from
which reef ecosystems require time to recover. The sequence of
ridges deposited on the reef top can provide a record of past storm
history (Hayne and Chappell, 2001); for the northern Great Barrier
Reef no change in frequency of extremely large cyclones has been
detected over the past 5000 years (Nott and Hayne, 2001). An
intensification of tropical storms (Section 6.3.2) could have
devastating consequences on the reefs themselves, as well as for
the inhabitants of many low-lying islands (Sections 6.4.2 and There is limited evidence that global warming may
result in an increase of coral range; for example, extension of
branching Acropora poleward has been recorded in Florida,
despite an almost Caribbean-wide trend for reef deterioration
(Precht and Aronson, 2004), but there are several constraints,
including low genetic diversity and the limited suitable substrate
at the latitudinal limits to reef growth (Riegl, 2003; Ayre and
Hughes, 2004; Woodroffe et al., 2005).
The fate of the small reef islands on the rim of atolls is of
special concern. Small reef islands in the Indo-Pacific formed over
recent millennia during a period when regional sea level fell
(Woodroffe and Morrison, 2001; Dickinson, 2004). However, the
response of these islands to future sea-level rise remains uncertain,
and is addressed in greater detail in Chapter 16, Section 16.4.2. It
will be important to identify critical thresholds of change beyond
which there may be collapse of ecological and social systems on
atolls. There are limited data, little local expertise to assess the
dangers, and a low level of economic activity to cover the costs of
adaptation for atolls in countries such as the Maldives, Kiribati
and Tuvalu (Barnett and Adger, 2003; Chapter 16, Box 16.6).
Consequences for human society
Since the TAR, global and regional studies on the impacts of
climate change are increasingly available, but few distinguish the
socio-economic implications for the coastal zone (see also
Section 6.5). Within these limits, Table 6.4 provides a qualitative
overview of climate-related changes on the various socioeconomic sectors of the coastal zone discussed in this section.
The socio-economic impacts in Table 6.4 are generally a
product of the physical changes outlined in Table 6.2. For
instance, extensive low-lying (often deltaic) areas, e.g., the
Netherlands, Guyana and Bangladesh (Box 6.3), and oceanic
islands are especially threatened by a rising sea level and all its
resulting impacts, whereas coral reef systems and polar regions
are already affected by rising temperatures (Sections 6.2.5 and
6.4.1). Socio-economic impacts are also influenced by the
magnitude and frequency of existing processes and extreme
events, e.g., the densely populated coasts of East, South and
South-east Asia are already exposed to frequent cyclones, and
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Table 6.4. Summary of climate-related impacts on socio-economic sectors in coastal zones.
Climate-related impacts (and their climate drivers in Figure 6.1)
Coastal socio-economic
(air and
(sea level,
Rising water
(sea level)
(sea level,
Salt water
(sea level,
(all climate
Freshwater resources
Agriculture and forestry
Fisheries and aquaculture
Recreation and tourism
X = strong; x= weak; – = negligible or not established.
Settlements/ infrastructure
this will compound the impacts of other climate changes (see
Chapter 10). Coastal ecosystems are particularly at risk from
climate change (CBD, 2003; Section 6.4.1), with serious
implications for the services that they provide to human society
(see Section 6.2.2; Box 6.4 and Chapter 4, Section 4.4.9).
Since the TAR, some important observations on the impacts
and consequences of climate change on human society at coasts
have emerged. First, significant regional differences in climate
change and local variability of the coast, including human
development patterns, result in variable impacts and adjustments
along the coast, with implications for adaptation responses
(Section 6.6). Second, human vulnerability to sea-level rise and
climate change is strongly influenced by the characteristics of
socio-economic development (Section 6.6.3). There are large
differences in coastal impacts when comparing the different
SRES worlds which cannot be attributed solely to the magnitude
of climate change (Nicholls and Lowe, 2006; Nicholls and Tol,
2006). Third, although the future magnitude of sea-level rise will
be reduced by mitigation, the long timescales of ocean response
(Box 6.6) mean that it is unclear what coastal impacts are avoided
and what impacts are simply delayed by the stabilisation of
greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere (Nicholls and
Lowe, 2006). Fourth, vulnerability to the impacts of climate
change, including the higher socio-economic burden imposed by
present climate-related hazards and disasters, is very likely to be
greater on coastal communities of developing countries than in
developed countries due to inequalities in adaptive capacity
(Defra, 2004; Section 6.5). For example, one quarter of Africa’s
population is located in resource-rich coastal zones and a high
proportion of GDP is exposed to climate-influenced coastal risks
(Nyong and Niang-Diop, 2006; Chapter 9). In Guyana, 90% of its
population and important economic activities are located within
the coastal zone and are threatened by sea-level rise and climate
change (Khan, 2001). Low-lying densely populated areas in
India, China and Bangladesh (see Chapter 10) and other deltaic
areas are highly exposed, as are the economies of small islands
(see Chapter 16). Freshwater resources
The direct influences of sea-level rise on freshwater resources
come principally from seawater intrusion into surface waters and
coastal aquifers, further encroachment of saltwater into estuaries
and coastal river systems, more extensive coastal inundation and
higher levels of sea flooding, increases in the landward reach of
sea waves and storm surges, and new or accelerated coastal
erosion (Hay and Mimura, 2005). Although the coast contains a
substantial proportion of the world’s population, it has a much
smaller proportion of the global renewable water supply, and the
coastal population is growing faster than elsewhere, exacerbating
this imbalance (see Section 6.2.2 and Chapter 3, Section 3.2).
Many coastal aquifers, especially shallow ones, experience
saltwater intrusion caused by natural and human-induced factors,
and this is exacerbated by sea-level rise (Essink, 2001). The scale
of saltwater intrusion is dependent on aquifer dimensions,
geological factors, groundwater withdrawals, surface water
recharge, submarine groundwater discharges and precipitation.
Therefore, coastal areas experiencing increases in precipitation
and run-off due to climate change (Section 6.3.2), including
floods, may benefit from groundwater recharge, especially on
some arid coasts (Khiyami et al., 2005). Salinisation of surface
waters in estuaries is also promoted by a rising sea level, e.g.,
Bay of Bengal (Allison et al., 2003).
Globally, freshwater supply problems due to climate change
are most likely in developing countries with a high proportion of
coastal lowland, arid and semi-arid coasts, coastal megacities
particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, and small island states,
reflecting both natural and socio-economic factors that enhance
the levels of risks (Alcamo and Henrichs, 2002; Ragab and
Prudhomme, 2002). Identifying future coastal areas with stressed
freshwater resources is difficult, particularly where there are
strong seasonal demands, poor or no metering, and theft of water
(Hall, 2003). Overall efficiency of water use is an important
consideration, particularly where agriculture is a large consumer,
e.g., the Nile delta (see Chapter 9, Box 9.2) and Asian
Based on the SRES emissions scenarios, it is estimated that
the increase in water stress would have a significant impact by the
2050s, when the different SRES population scenarios have a clear
effect (Arnell, 2004). But, regardless of the scenarios applied,
critical regions with a higher sensitivity to water stresses, arising
from either increases in water withdrawal or decreases in water
available, have been identified in coastal regions that include
parts of the western coasts of Latin America and the Algerian
coast (Alcamo and Henrichs, 2002).
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Chapter 6
Box 6.4. Hurricane Katrina and coastal ecosystem services in the Mississippi delta
Whereas an individual hurricane event cannot be attributed to climate change, it can serve to illustrate the consequences for
ecosystem services if the intensity and/or frequency of such events were to increase in the future. One result of Hurricane Katrina,
which made landfall in coastal Louisiana on 29th August 2005, was the loss of 388 km2 of coastal wetlands, levees and islands that
flank New Orleans in the Mississippi River deltaic plain (Barras, 2006) (Figure 6.7). (Hurricane Rita, which struck in September 2005,
had relatively minor effects on this part of the Louisiana coast which are included in this estimate.) The Chandeleur Islands, which
lie south-east of the city, were reduced to roughly half of their former extent as a direct result of Hurricane Katrina. Collectively, these
natural systems serve as the first line of defence against storm surge in this highly populated region. While some habitat recovery
is expected, it is likely to be minimal compared to the scale of the losses. The Chandeleur Islands serve as an important wintering
ground for migratory waterfowl and neo-tropical birds; a large population of North American redhead ducks, for example, feed on
the rhizomes of sheltered sea grasses leeward of the Chandeleur Islands (Michot, 2000). Historically the region has ranked second
only to Alaska in U.S. commercial fisheries production, and this high productivity has been attributed to the extent of coastal
marshes and sheltered estuaries of the Mississippi River delta. Over 1800 people lost their lives (Graumann et al., 2005) during
Hurricane Katrina and the economic losses totalled more than US$100 billion (NOAA, 2007). Roughly 300,000 homes and over 1,000
historical and cultural sites were destroyed along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts (the loss of oil production and refinery
capacity helped to raise global oil prices in the short term). Post-Katrina, some major changes to the delta’s management are being
advocated, most notably abandonment of the “bird-foot delta” where artificial levees channel valuable sediments into deep water
(EFGC, 2006; NRC, 2006). The aim is to restore large-scale delta building processes and hence sustain the ecosystem services in
the long term. Hurricane Katrina is further discussed in Box 7.4 (Chapter 7) and Chapter 14.
Figure 6.7. The Mississippi delta, including the Chandeleur Islands. Areas in red were converted to open water during the hurricane. Yellow
lines on index map of Louisiana show tracks of Hurricane Katrina on right and Hurricane Rita on left. (Figure source: U.S. Geological Survey,
modified from Barras, 2006.)
Chapter 6 Agriculture, forestry and fisheries
Climate change is expected to have impacts on agriculture
and, to a lesser extent, on forestry, although non-climatic factors,
such as technological development and management practices
can be more significant (Easterling, 2003). Climate variability
and change also impacts fisheries in coastal and estuarine waters
(Daufresne et al., 2003; Genner et al., 2004), although nonclimatic factors, such as overfishing and habitat loss and
degradation, are already responsible for reducing fish stocks.
Globally an increased agricultural production potential due to
climate change and CO2 fertilisation should in principle add to
food security, but the impacts on the coastal areas may differ
regionally and locally. For example, in Europe, climate-related
increases in crop yields are expected in the north, while the
largest reductions are expected in the Mediterranean, the southwest Balkans and southern Russia (Maracchi et al., 2005).
Temperature increases can shorten growing cycles, e.g., those
of cotton and mango on the north coast of Peru during the El
Niño (see Chapter 13, Section 13.2.2). More frequent extreme
climate events during specific crop development stages, together
with higher rainfall intensity and longer dry spells, may impact
negatively on crop yields (Olesen et al., 2006). Cyclone landfalls
causing floods and destruction have negative impacts on coastal
areas, e.g., on coconuts in India (see Chapter 5, Section 5.4.4),
or on sugar cane and bananas in Queensland (Cyclone Larry in
March 2006). Rising sea level has negative impacts on coastal
agriculture. Detailed modelling of inundation implies significant
changes to the number of rice crops possible in the Mekong delta
under 20-40 cm of relative sea-level rise (Wassmann et al.,
2004). Rising sea level potentially threatens inundation and soil
salinisation of palm oil and coconuts in Benin and Côte d’Ivoire
(see Chapter 9, Section 9.4.6) and mangoes, cashew nuts and
coconuts in Kenya (Republic of Kenya, 2002).
Coastal forestry is little studied, but forests are easily affected
by climatic perturbations, and severe storms can cause extensive
losses, e.g., Hurricane Katrina. Plantation forests (mainly P.
radiata) on the east coast of North Island, New Zealand, are
likely to experience growth reductions under projected rainfall
decreases (Ministry for the Environment, 2001). Increasing
salinity and greater frequency of flooding due to sea-level rise
reduces the ability of trees to generate, including mangroves
which will also experience other changes (Section
(IUCN, 2003).
Future climate change impacts will be greater on coastal than
on pelagic species, and for temperate endemics than for tropical
species (see Chapter 11, Section 11.4.6). For Europe, regional
climate warming has influenced northerly migration of fish
species, e.g., sardines and anchovies in the North Sea (Brander
et al., 2003a). The biotic communities and productivity of
coastal lagoons may experience a variety of changes, depending
on the changes in wetland area, freshwater flows and salt
intrusion which affect the species. Intensification of ENSO
events and increases in SST, wind stress, hypoxia (shortage of
oxygen) and the deepening of the thermocline will reduce
spawning areas and catches of anchovy off Peru (see Chapter
13, Table 13.7). There is also concern that climate change may
affect the abundance and distribution of pathogens and HABs,
with implications for aquatic organisms and human health
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
(Section The linkage between temperature changes and
HABs is still not robust, and the extent to which coastal
eutrophication will be affected by future climate variability will
vary with local physical environmental conditions and current
eutrophication status (Justic et al., 2005). Ocean acidification is
a concern, but impacts are uncertain (Royal Society, 2005).
Climate change also has implications for mariculture but again
these are not well understood. Human settlements, infrastructure and migration
Climate change and sea-level rise affect coastal settlements
and infrastructure in several ways (Table 6.4). Sea-level rise
raises extreme water levels with possible increases in storm
intensity portending additional climate impacts on many coastal
areas (Box 6.2), while saltwater intrusion may threaten water
supplies. The degradation of natural coastal systems due to
climate change, such as wetlands, beaches and barrier islands
(Section, removes the natural defences of coastal
communities against extreme water levels during storms (Box
6.5). Rapid population growth, urban sprawl, growing demand
for waterfront properties, and coastal resort development have
additional deleterious effects on protective coastal ecosystems.
Much of the coast of many European and East Asian
countries have defences against flooding and erosion, e.g., the
Netherlands (Jonkman et al., 2005) and Japan (Chapter 10,
Section 10.5.3), reflecting a strong tradition of coastal defence.
In particular, many coastal cities are heavily dependent upon
artificial coastal defences, e.g., Tokyo, Shanghai, Hamburg,
Rotterdam and London. These urban systems are vulnerable to
low-probability extreme events above defence standards and to
systemic failures (domino effects), e.g., the ports, roads and
railways along the US Gulf and Atlantic coasts are especially
vulnerable to coastal flooding (see Chapter 14, Section 14.2.6).
Where these cities are subsiding, there are additional risks of
extreme water levels overtopping flood defences, e.g., New
Orleans during Hurricane Katrina (Box 6.4). Climate change and
sea-level rise will exacerbate flood risk. Hence, many coastal
cities require upgraded design criteria for flood embankments
and barrages (e.g., the Thames barrier in London, the Delta
works in the Netherlands, Shanghai’s defences, and planned
protection for Venice) (Fletcher and Spencer, 2005) (see Box 6.2
and Section 6.6).
There is now a better understanding of flooding as a natural
hazard, and how climate change and other factors are likely to
influence coastal flooding in the future (Hunt, 2002). However,
the prediction of precise locations for increased flood risk
resulting from climate change is difficult, as flood risk dynamics
have multiple social, technical and environmental drivers (Few
et al., 2004b). The population exposed to flooding by storm
surges will increase over the 21st century (Table 6.5). Asia
dominates the global exposure with its large coastal population:
Bangladesh, China, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand having serious
coastal flooding problems (see Section 6.6.2; Chapter 10,
Section; Mimura, 2001). Africa is also likely to see a
substantially increased exposure, with East Africa (e.g.,
Mozambique) having particular problems due to the
combination of tropical storm landfalls and large projected
population growth in addition to sea-level rise (Nicholls, 2006).
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Chapter 6
Table 6.5. Estimates of the population (in millions) of the coastal flood
plain* in 1990 and the 2080s (following Nicholls, 2004). Assumes
uniform population growth; net coastward migration could
substantially increase these numbers.
SRES scenarios (and sea-level rise
scenario in metres)
* Area below the 1 in 1,000 year flood level.
Table 6.6 shows estimates of coastal flooding due to storm surge,
taking into account one adaptation assumption. Asia and Africa
experience the largest impacts: without sea-level rise, coastal
flooding is projected to diminish as a problem under the SRES
scenarios while, with sea-level rise, the coastal flood problem is
growing by the 2080s, most especially under the A2 scenario.
Increased storm intensity would exacerbate these impacts, as would
larger rises in sea level, including due to human-induced subsidence
(Nicholls, 2004). Figure 6.8 shows the numbers of people flooded
in the 2080s as a function of sea-level rise, and variable assumptions
on adaptation. Flood impacts vary with sea-level rise scenario,
socio-economic situation and adaptation assumptions. Assuming
that there will be no defence upgrade has a dramatic impact on the
result, with more than 100 million people flooded per year above a
40 cm rise for all SRES scenarios. Upgraded defences reduce the
impacts substantially: the greater the upgrade the lower the impacts.
This stresses the importance of understanding the effectiveness and
timing of adaptation (Section 6.6).
Figure 6.8. Estimates of people flooded in coastal areas due to sealevel rise, SRES socio-economic scenario and protection response in
the 2080s (following Nicholls and Lowe, 2006; Nicholls and Tol, 2006) Human health
Coastal communities, particularly in low income countries,
are vulnerable to a range of health effects due to climate
variability and long-term climate change, particularly extreme
weather and climate events (such as cyclones, floods and
droughts) as summarised in Table 6.7.
The potential impacts of climate change on populations
in coastal regions will be determined by the future health
status of the population, its capacity to cope with climate
hazards and control infectious diseases, and other public
health measures. Coastal communities that rely on marine
resources for food, in terms of both supply and maintaining
food quality (food safety), are vulnerable to climate-related
impacts, in both health and economic terms. Marine
ecological processes linked to temperature changes also play
a role in determining human health risks, such as from
parahaemolyticus), HABs, and shellfish and reef fish
Table 6.6. Estimates of the average annual number of coastal flood victims (in millions) due to sea-level rise (following Nicholls, 2004). Assumes no
change in storm intensity and evolving protection**. Range reflects population growth as reported in Table 6.1. Base= baseline without sea-level
rise; aSLR = additional impacts due to sea-level rise.
Timelines, SRES socio-economic (and sea-level rise scenarios in metres)
** Protection standards improve as GDP per capita increases, but there is no additional adaptation for sea-level rise.
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Table 6.7. Health effects of climate change and sea-level rise in coastal areas.
Health outcome
(Catastrophic) flooding
Deaths (drowning, other causes), injuries, infectious disease
Sections 6.4.2, 6.5.2
(respiratory, intestinal, skin), mental health disorders, impacts
and 8.2.2; Box 6.4
from interruption of health services and population displacement. (Few and Matthies,
Food safety: marine bacteria proliferation, shellfish poisoning,
ciguatera. Malnutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies. and 8.2.4
Impairment of food quality and/or food supplies (loss
of crop land, decreased fisheries productivity).
Climate change effects on HABs.
Reduced water quality and/or access to potable water
supplies due to salinisation, flooding or drought.
Diarrhoeal diseases (giardia, cholera), and hepatitis, enteric
fevers. Water-washed infections.
Sections, 7.5
and 8.2.5
Change in transmission intensity or distribution of
vector-borne disease. Changes in vector abundance.
Changes in malaria, and other mosquito-borne infections (some
Anopheles vectors breed in brackish water).
Sections 8.2.8 and
Effects on livelihoods, population movement, and
potential “environmental refugees”.
Health effects are less well described. Large-scale rapid
population movement would have severe health implications.
Section and
limited health
poisoning (Pascual et al., 2002; Hunter, 2003; Lipp et al.,
2004; Peperzak, 2005; McLaughlin et al., 2006).
Convincing evidence of the impacts of observed climate
change on coastal disease patterns is absent (Kovats and Haines,
2005). There is an association between ENSO and cholera risk
in Bangladesh (Pascual et al., 2002). Rainfall changes associated
with ENSO are known to increase the risk of malaria epidemics
in coastal regions of Venezuela and Colombia (Kovats et al.,
2003). The projection of health impacts of climate change is still
difficult and uncertain (Ebi and Gamble, 2005; Kovats et al.,
2005), and socio-economic factors may be more critical than
climate. There are also complex relationships between
ecosystems and human well-being, and the future coastal
ecosystem changes discussed in Section 6.4.1 may affect human
health (cf. Butler et al., 2005). Biodiversity
The distribution, production, and many other aspects of
species and biodiversity in coastal ecosystems are highly
sensitive to variations in weather and climate (Section 6.4.1),
affecting the distribution and abundance of the plant and animal
species that depend on each coastal system type. Human
development patterns also have an important influence on
biodiversity among coastal system types. Mangroves, for
example, support rich ecological communities of fish and
crustaceans, are a source of energy for coastal food chains, and
export carbon in the form of plant and animal detritus,
stimulating estuarine and nearshore productivity (Jennerjahn and
Ittekkot, 2002). Large-scale conversions of coastal mangrove
forests to shrimp aquaculture have occurred during the past three
decades along the coastlines of Vietnam (Binh et al., 1997),
Bangladesh and India (Zweig, 1998), Hong Kong (Tam and
Wong, 2002), the Philippines (Spalding et al., 1997), Mexico
(Contreras-Espinosa and Warner, 2004), Thailand (Furakawa
and Baba, 2001) and Malaysia (Ong, 2001). The additional
stressors associated with climate change could lead to further
declines in mangroves forests and their biodiversity.
Several recent studies have revealed that climate change is
already impacting biodiversity in some coastal systems. Long-
term monitoring of the occurrence and distribution of a series of
intertidal and shallow water organisms in south-west Britain has
shown several patterns of change, particularly in the case of
barnacles, which correlate broadly with changes in temperature
over the several decades of record (Hawkins et al., 2003;
Mieszkowska et al., 2006). It is clear that responses of intertidal
and shallow marine organisms to climate change are more
complex than simply latitudinal shifts related to temperature
increase, with complex biotic interactions superimposed on the
abiotic (Harley et al., 2006; Helmuth et al., 2006). Examples
include the northward range extension of a marine snail in
California (Zacherl et al., 2003) and the reappearance of the blue
mussel in Svalbard (Berge et al., 2005).
Patterns of overwintering of migratory birds on the British
coast appear to have changed in response to temperature rise
(Rehfisch et al., 2004), and it has been suggested that changes in
invertebrate distribution might subsequently influence the
distribution of ducks and wading birds (Kendall et al., 2004).
However, as detailed studies of redshank have shown, the factors
controlling distribution are complex and in many cases are
influenced by human activities (Norris et al., 2004). Piersma and
Lindstrom (2004) review changes in bird distribution but conclude
that none can be convincingly attributed to climate change. Loss
of birds from some estuaries appears to be the result of coastal
squeeze and relative sea-level rise (Hughes, 2004; Knogge et al.,
2004). A report by the United Nations Framework Convention on
Biodiversity (CBD, 2006) presents guidance for incorporating
biodiversity considerations in climate change adaptation
strategies, with examples from several coastal regions. Recreation and tourism
Climate change has major potential impacts on coastal
tourism, which is strongly dependent on ‘sun, sea and sand’.
Globally, travel to sunny and warm coastal destinations is the
major factor for tourists travelling from Northern Europe to the
Mediterranean (16% of world’s tourists) and from North
America to the Caribbean (1% of world’s tourists) (WTO, 2003).
By 2020, the total number of international tourists is expected to
exceed 1.5 billion (WTO, undated).
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Climate change may influence tourism directly via the
decision-making process by influencing tourists to choose
different destinations; and indirectly as a result of sea-level rise
and resulting coastal erosion (Agnew and Viner, 2001). The
preferences for climates at tourist destinations also differ among
age and income groups (Lise and Tol, 2002), suggesting
differential responses. Increased awareness of interactions
between ozone depletion and climate change and the subsequent
impact on the exposure of human skin to ultraviolet light is
another factor influencing tourists’ travel choice (Diffey, 2004).
In general, air temperature rise is most important to tourism,
except where factors such as sea-level rise promote beach
degradation and viable adaptation options (e.g., nourishment or
recycling) are not available (Bigano et al., 2005). Other likely
impacts of climate change on coastal tourism are due to coral reef
degradation (Box 6.1; Section (Hoegh-Guldberg et al.,
2000). Temperature and rainfall pattern changes may impact water
quality in coastal areas and this may lead to more beach closures.
Climate change is likely to affect international tourist flows prior
to travel, en route, and at the destination (Becken and Hay,
undated). As tourism is still a growth industry, the changes in
tourist numbers induced by climate change are likely to be much
smaller than those resulting from population and economic growth
(Bigano et al., 2005; Hamilton et al., 2005; Table 6.2). Higher
temperatures are likely to change summer destination preferences,
especially for Europe: summer heatwaves in the Mediterranean
may lead to a shift in tourism to spring and autumn (Madisson,
2001) with growth in summer tourism around the Baltic and North
Seas (see Chapter 12, Section 12.4.9). Although new climate niches
are emerging, the empirical data do not suggest reduced
competitiveness of the sun, sea and sand destinations, as they are
able to restructure to meet tourists’ demands (Aguiló et al., 2005).
Within the Caribbean, the rapidly growing cruise industry is not
vulnerable to sea-level rise, unlike coastal resorts. On high-risk
(e.g., hurricane-prone) coasts, insurance costs for tourism could
increase substantially or insurance may no longer be available. This
exacerbates the impacts of extreme events or restricts new tourism
in high-risk regions (Scott et al., 2005), e.g., four hurricanes in
2004 dealt a heavy toll in infrastructure damage and lost business
in Florida’s tourism industry (see Chapter 14, Section 14.2.7).
Key vulnerabilities and hotspots
A comprehensive assessment of the potential impacts of
climate change must consider at least three components of
vulnerability: exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity (Section
6.6). Significant regional differences in present climate and
expected climate change give rise to different exposure among
human populations and natural systems to climate stimuli (IPCC,
2001). The previous sections of this chapter broadly characterise
the sensitivity and natural adaptive capacity (or resilience) of
several major classes of coastal environments to changes in
climate and sea-level rise. Differences in geological,
oceanographic and biological processes can also lead to
substantially different impacts on a single coastal system at
different locations. Some global patterns and hotspots of
vulnerability are evident, however, and deltas/estuaries (especially
populated megadeltas), coral reefs (especially atolls), and ice336
Chapter 6
dominated coasts appear most vulnerable to either climate change
or associated sea-level rise and changes. Low-lying coastal
wetlands, small islands, sand and gravel beaches and soft rock
cliffs may also experience significant changes.
An acceleration of sea-level rise would directly increase the
vulnerability of all of the above systems, but sea-level rise will
not occur uniformly around the world (Section 6.3.2). Variability
of storms and waves, as well as sediment supply and the ability to
migrate landward, also influence the vulnerability of many of
these coastal system types. Hence, there is an important element
of local to regional variation among coastal system types that must
be considered when conducting site-specific vulnerability
Our understanding of human adaptive capacity is less
developed than our understanding of responses by natural
systems, which limits the degree to which we can quantify
societal vulnerability in the world’s coastal regions. Nonetheless,
several key aspects of human vulnerability have emerged. It is
also apparent that multiple and concomitant non-climate stresses
will exacerbate the impacts of climate change on most natural
coastal systems, leading to much larger and detrimental changes
in the 21st century than those of the 20th century. Table 6.8
summarises some of the key hotspots of vulnerability that often
arise from the combination of natural and societal factors. Note
that some examples such as atolls and small islands and
deltas/megadeltas recur, stressing their high vulnerability.
While physical exposure is an important aspect of the
vulnerability for both human populations and natural systems to
both present and future climate variability and change, a lack of
adaptive capacity is often the most important factor that creates
a hotspot of human vulnerability. Societal vulnerability is largely
dependent upon development status (Yohe and Tol, 2002).
Developing nations may have the societal will to relocate people
who live in low-lying coastal zones but, without the necessary
financial resources, their vulnerability is much greater than that
of a developed nation in an identical coastal setting. Looking to
the scenarios, the A2 SRES world often appears most vulnerable
to climate change in coastal areas, again reflecting socioeconomic controls in addition to the magnitude of climate
change (Nicholls, 2004; Nicholls and Tol, 2006). Hence,
development is not only a key consideration in evaluating
greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, but is also
fundamental in assessing adaptive capacity because greater
access to wealth and technology generally increases adaptive
capacity, while poverty limits adaptation options (Yohe and Tol,
2002). A lack of risk awareness or institutional capacity can also
have an important influence on human vulnerability, as
experienced in the United States during Hurricane Katrina.
6.5 Costs and other socio-economic aspects
The costs, benefits and other socio-economic consequences
of climate variability and change for coastal and low-lying areas
have been determined for many aspects, including heat stress
and changes in plant and animal metabolism (see Chapter 4,
Section 4.2 and Box 4.4), disease (see Chapter 8, Section 8.5),
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Table 6.8. Key hotspots of societal vulnerability in coastal zones.
Controlling factors
Examples from this Chapter
Coastal areas where there are substantial barriers to adaptation
(economic, institutional, environmental, technical, etc.)
Venice, Asian megadeltas, atolls and small islands, New Orleans
Coastal areas subject to multiple natural and human-induced stresses,
such as subsidence or declining natural defences
Mississippi, Nile and Asian megadeltas, the Netherlands,
Mediterranean, Maldives
Coastal areas already experiencing adverse effects of temperature rise
Coral reefs, Arctic coasts (USA, Canada, Russia), Antarctic peninsula
Coastal areas with significant flood-plain populations that are exposed
to significant storm surge hazards
Bay of Bengal, Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean, Rio de la Plata/Parana delta,
North Sea
Coastal areas where freshwater resources are likely to be reduced by
climate change
W. Africa, W. Australia, atolls and small islands
Coastal areas with tourist-based economies where major adverse
effects on tourism are likely
Caribbean, Mediterranean, Florida, Thailand, Maldives
Highly sensitive coastal systems where the scope for inland migration
is limited
Many developed estuarine coasts, low small islands, Bangladesh
water supply (see Chapter 3, Section 3.5), and coastal forests,
agriculture and aquaculture (see Chapter 5, Section 5.6). The
following section focuses on evaluating the socio-economic
consequences of sea-level rise, storm damage and coastal
Methods and tools for characterising socioeconomic consequences
Since the TAR there has been further progress in moving from
classical cost-benefit analysis to assessments that integrate
monetary, social and natural science criteria. For example, Hughes
et al. (2005) report the emergence of a complex systems approach
for sustaining and repairing marine ecosystems. This links
ecological resilience to governance structures, economics and
society. Such developments are in response to the growing
recognition of the intricate linkages between physical coastal
processes, the diverse coastal ecosystems, and resources at risk
from climate change, the many ecological functions they serve
and services they provide, and the variety of human amenities and
activities that depend on them. Thus a more complete picture of
climate change impacts emerges if assessments take into account
the locally embedded realities and constraints that affect
individual decision makers and community responses to climate
change (Moser, 2000, 2005). Increasingly, Integrated Assessment
provides an analytical framework, and an interdisciplinary
learning and engagement process for experts, decision makers and
stakeholders (Turner, 2001). Evaluations of societal and other
analytical methods with scenario analysis. For example, a recent
analysis of managed realignment schemes (Coombes et al., 2004)
took into account social, environmental and economic
consequences when evaluating direct and indirect benefits.
Direct cost estimates are common across the climate change
impact literature as they are relatively simple to conduct and
easy to explain. Such estimates are also becoming increasingly
elaborate. For example, several studies of sea-level rise
considered land and wetland loss, population displacement and
coastal protection via dike construction (e.g., Tol, 2007). Socioeconomic variables, such as income and population density, are
important in estimating wetland value but are often omitted
when making such estimations (Brander et al., 2003b). But
direct cost estimates ignore such effects as changes in land use
and food prices if land is lost. One way to estimate these
additional effects is to use a computable general equilibrium
(CGE) model to consider markets for all goods and services
simultaneously, taking international trade and investment into
account (e.g., Bosello et al., 2004). However, the major
economic effects of climate change may well be associated with
out-of-equilibrium phenomena (Moser, 2006). Also, few CGE
models include adequate representations of physical processes
and constraints.
Given the recent and anticipated increases in damages from
extreme events, the insurance industry and others are making
greater use of catastrophe models. These cover event generation
(e.g., storm magnitude and frequency), hazard simulation (wind
stresses and surge heights), damage modelling (extent of
structural damage), and financial modelling (costs) (Muir-Wood
et al., 2005). Stochastic modelling is used to generate thousands
of simulated events and develop probabilistic approaches to
quantifying the risks (Aliff, 2006; Chapter 2).
Methodologically, many challenges remain. Work to date has
insufficiently crossed disciplinary boundaries (Visser, 2004).
Although valuation techniques are continually being improved,
and are now better linked to risk-based decision making, they
remain imperfect, and in some instances controversial. This
requires a transdisciplinary response from the social and natural
Socio-economic consequences under current
climate conditions
Under current climate conditions, developing countries bear
the main human burden of climate-related extreme events
(Munich Re Group, 2004; CRED, 2005; UN Secretary General,
2006a). But it is equally evident that developed countries are not
insulated from disastrous consequences (Boxes 6.4 and Chapter
7, Box 7.4). The societal costs of coastal disasters are typically
quantified in terms of property losses and human deaths. For
example, Figure 6.9 shows a significant threshold in real estate
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
damage costs related to flood levels. Post-event impacts on
coastal businesses, families and neighbourhoods, public and
private social institutions, natural resources, and the
environment generally go unrecognised in disaster cost
accounting (Heinz Center, 2000; Baxter, 2005). Finding an
accurate way to document these unreported or hidden costs is a
challenging problem that has received increasing attention in
recent years. For example, Heinz Center (2000) showed that
family roles and responsibilities after a disastrous coastal storm
undergo profound changes associated with household and
employment disruption, economic hardship, poor living
conditions, and the disruption of pubic services such as
education and preventive health care. Indirect costs imposed by
health problems (Section result from damaged homes
and utilities, extreme temperatures, contaminated food, polluted
water, debris- and mud-borne bacteria, and mildew and mould.
Within the family, relationships after a disastrous climate-related
event can become so stressful that family desertion and divorce
may increase. Hence, accounting for the full range of costs is
difficult, though essential to the accurate assessment of climaterelated coastal hazards.
Tropical cyclones have major economic, social and
environmental consequences for coastal areas (Box 6.4). Up to
119 million people are on average exposed every year to tropical
cyclone hazard (UNDP, 2004). Worldwide, from 1980 to 2000, a
total of more than 250,000 deaths were associated with tropical
cyclones, of which 60% occurred in Bangladesh (this is less than
the 300,000 killed in Bangladesh in 1970 by a single cyclone).
The death toll has been reduced in the past decade due largely to
improvements in warnings and preparedness, wider public
awareness and a stronger sense of community responsibility
(ISDR, 2004). The most-exposed countries have densely
populated coastal areas, often comprising deltas and megadeltas
(China, India, the Philippines, Japan, Bangladesh) (UNDP, 2004).
In Cairns (Australia), cyclone experience and education may have
contributed synergistically to a change in risk perceptions and a
reduction in the vulnerability of residents to tropical cyclone and
storm surge hazards (Anderson-Berry, 2003). In Japan, the annual
number of tropical cyclones and typhoons making landfall showed
no significant trend from 1950 to 2004, but the number of portrelated disasters decreased. This is attributed to increased
Chapter 6
protection against such disasters. However, annual average
restoration expenditures over the period still amount to over
US$250 million (Hay and Mimura, 2006).
Between 1980 and 2005, the United States sustained 67
weather-related disasters, each with an overall damage cost of at
least US$1 billion. Coastal states in the south-east US
experienced the greatest number of such disasters. The total
costs including both insured and uninsured losses for the period,
adjusted to 2002, were over US$500 billion (NOAA, 2007).
There are differing views as to whether climatic factors have
contributed to the increasing frequency of major weather-related
disasters along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the USA (Pielke
Jr et al., 2005; Pielke and Landsea, 1998). But the most recent
reviews by Trenberth et al. (2007) and Meehl et al. (2007)
support the view that storm intensity has increased and this will
continue with global warming. Whichever view is correct, the
damage costs associated with these events are undisputedly high,
and will increase into the future.
Erosion of coasts (Section is a costly problem under
present climatic conditions. About 20% of the European Union’s
coastline suffered serious erosion impacts in 2004, with the area
lost or seriously impacted estimated at 15 km2/yr. In 2001, annual
expenditure on coastline protection in Europe was an estimated
US$4 billion, up from US$3 billion in 1986 (Eurosion, 2004). The
high rates of erosion experienced by beach communities on
Delaware’s Atlantic coast (USA) are already requiring publicly
funded beach nourishment projects in order to sustain the area’s
attractiveness as a summer resort (Daniel, 2001). Along the east
coast of the United States and Canada, sea-level rise over the last
century has reduced the return period of extreme water levels,
exacerbating the damage to fixed structures from modern storms
compared to the same events a century ago (Zhang et al., 2000;
Forbes et al., 2004a). These and other studies have raised major
questions, including: (i) the feasibility, implications and
acceptability of shoreline retreat; (ii) the appropriate type of
shoreline protection (e.g., beach nourishment, hard protection or
other typically expensive responses) in situations where rates of
shoreline retreat are increasing; (iii) doubts as to the longer-term
sustainability of such interventions; and (iv) whether insurance
provided by the public and private sectors encourages people to
build, and rebuild, in vulnerable areas.
Figure 6.9. Real estate damage costs related to flood levels for the Rio
de la Plata, Argentina (Barros et al., 2006).
Socio-economic consequences of climate
Substantial progress has been made in evaluating the socioeconomic consequences of climate change, including changes
in variability and extremes. In general, the results show that
socio-economic costs will likely escalate as a result of climate
change, as already shown for the broader impacts (Section 6.4).
Most immediately, this will reflect increases in variability and
extreme events and only in the longer term will costs (in the
widest sense) be dominated by trends in average conditions,
such as mean sea-level rise (van Aalst, 2006). The impacts of
such changes in climate and sea level are overwhelmingly
adverse. But benefits have also been identified, including
reduced cold-water mortalities of many valuable fish and
shellfish species (see Chapter 15, Section,
Chapter 6
opportunities for increased use of fishing vessels and coastal
shipping facilities (see Chapter 15, Section, expansion
of areas suitable for aquaculture (see Chapter 5, Section,
reduced hull strengthening and icebreaking costs, and the
opening of new ocean routes due to reduced sea ice. Countries
with large land areas generally benefit from competitive
advantage effects (Bosello et al., 2004).
In the absence of an improvement to protection, coastal
flooding could grow tenfold or more by the 2080s, to affect more
than 100 million people/yr, due to sea-level rise alone (Figure
6.8). Figure 6.10 shows the consequences and total costs of a
rise in sea level for developing and developed countries, and
globally. This analysis assumes protection is implemented based
on benefit-cost analysis, so the impacts are more consistent with
enhanced protection in Figure 6.8, and investment is required
for the protection. The consequences of sea-level rise will be far
greater for developing countries, and protection costs will be
higher, relative to those for developed countries.
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Such global assessments are complemented by numerous
regional, national and more detailed studies. The number of
people in Europe subject to coastal erosion or flood risk in 2020
may exceed 158,000, while half of Europe’s coastal wetlands
are expected to disappear as a result of sea-level rise (Eurosion,
2004). In Thailand, loss of land due to a sea-level rise of 50 cm
and 100 cm could decrease national GDP by 0.36% and 0.69%
(US$300 to 600 million) per year, respectively; due to location
and other factors, the manufacturing sector in Bangkok could
suffer the greatest damage, amounting to about 61% and 38%
of the total damage, respectively (Ohno, 2001). The annual cost
of protecting Singapore’s coast is estimated to be between
US$0.3 and 5.7 million by 2050 and between US$0.9 and 16.8
million by 2100 (Ng and Mendelsohn, 2005). In the cities of
Alexandria, Rosetta and Port Said on the Nile delta coast of
Egypt, a sea-level rise of 50 cm could result in over 2 million
people abandoning their homes, the loss of 214,000 jobs and the
loss of land valued at over US$35 billion (El-Raey, 1997).
Figure 6.10. Causes, selected consequences (dryland and wetland loss, people displaced) and the total costs of an assumed sea-level rise, for
developing and developed countries, and as a global total (based on Tol, 2007).
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
6.6 Adaptation: practices, options and
This section first highlights issues that arise with
interventions designed to reduce risks to natural and human
coastal systems as a consequence of climate change. As
recognised in earlier IPCC assessments (Bijlsma et al., 1996;
McLean et al., 2001), a key conclusion is that reactive and
standalone efforts to reduce climate-related risks to coastal
systems are less effective than responses which are part of
integrated coastal zone management (ICZM), including longterm national and community planning (see also Kay and Adler,
2005). Within this context, subsequent sections describe the
tools relevant to adaptation in coastal areas, options for
adaptation of coastal systems, and current and planned
adaptation initiatives. Examples of the costs of, and limits to,
coastal adaptation are described, as are the trade-offs.
Constraints on, limitations to, and strategies for strengthening
adaptive capacity are also described. Finally, the links between
coastal adaptation and efforts to mitigate climate change are
Adaptation to changes in climate and sea level Issues and challenges
Recent extreme events (Box 6.5), whether climate-related or
not, have highlighted many of the challenges inherent in
adapting to changes in climate and sea level. One constraint on
successful management of climate-related risks to coastal
systems is the limited ability to characterise in appropriate detail
how these systems, and their constituent parts, will respond to
climate change drivers and to adaptation initiatives (Sections
6.2.4 and 6.4; Finkl, 2002). Of particular importance is
understanding the extent to which natural coastal systems can
adapt and therefore continue to provide essential life-supporting
services to society. The lack of understanding of the coastal
Chapter 6
system, including the highly interactive nature and non-linear
behaviour (Sections 6.2 and 6.4), means that failure to take an
integrated approach to characterising climate-related risks
increases the likelihood that the effectiveness of adaptation will
be reduced, and perhaps even negated. Despite the growing
emphasis on beach nourishment (Hanson et al., 2002), the longterm effectiveness and feasibility of such adaptive measures
remains uncertain, especially with the multiple goals explicit
within ICZM (Section The question of who pays and
who benefits from adaptation is another issue of concern. Public
acceptance of the need for adaptation, and of specific measures,
also needs to be increased (Neumann et al., 2000). The
significant and diverse challenges are summarised in Table 6.9
and discussed further in the identified sections. Integrated coastal zone management (ICZM)
ICZM provides a major opportunity to address the many
issues and challenges identified above. Since it offers advantages
over purely sectoral approaches, ICZM is widely recognised and
promoted as the most appropriate process to deal with climate
change, sea-level rise and other current and long-term coastal
challenges (Isobe, 2001; Nicholls and Klein, 2005; Harvey,
2006b). Enhancing adaptive capacity is an important part of
ICZM. The extent to which climate change and sea-level rise
are considered in coastal management plans is one useful
measure of commitment to integration and sustainability.
Responses to sea-level rise and climate change need to be
implemented in the broader context and the wider objectives of
coastal planning and management (Kennish, 2002; Moser,
2005). ICZM focuses on integrating and balancing multiple
objectives in the planning process (Christie et al., 2005).
Generation of equitably distributed social and environmental
benefits is a key factor in ICZM process sustainability, but is
difficult to achieve. Attention is also paid to legal and
institutional frameworks that support integrative planning on
local and national scales. Different social groups have
contrasting, and often conflicting views on the relative priorities
Box 6.5. Recent extreme events – lessons for coastal adaptation to climate change
Recent extreme events, both climate and non-climate related, that had major consequences for coastal systems, provide
important messages for adaptation to climate change. Scientific literature and government reports emanating from hurricane and
cyclone impacts (e.g., Cook Islands (Ingram, 2005); Katrina (US Government, 2006); Australia (Williams et al., 2007), flood impacts
(e.g., Mumbai (Wisner, 2006)) and the Boxing Day Sumatran tsunami (UNEP, 2005; UNOCHA, 2005) include the following.
• An effective early warning communication and response system can reduce death and destruction;
• Hazard awareness education and personal hazard experience are important contributors to reducing community vulnerability;
• Many factors reduce the ability or willingness of people to flee an impending disaster, including the warning time, access
and egress routes, and their perceived need to protect property, pets and possessions;
• Coastal landforms (coral reefs, barrier islands) and wetland ecosystems (mangroves, marshes) provide a natural first line of
protection from storm surges and flooding, despite divergent views about the extent to which they reduce destruction;
• Recurrent events reduce the resilience of natural and artificial defences;
• In the aftermath of extreme events, additional trauma occurs in terms of dispossession and mental health;
• Uncoordinated and poorly regulated construction has accentuated vulnerability;
• Effective disaster prevention and response rely on strong governance and institutions, as well as adequate public
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Table 6.9. Major impediments to the success of adaptation in the coastal zone.
Example Reference
Lack of dynamic predictions of landform migration
Pethick, 2001
Insufficient or inappropriate shoreline protection measures
Finkl, 2002
Data exchange and integration hampered by divergent information management systems
Hale et al., 2003
Lack of definition of key indicators and thresholds relevant to coastal managers
Rice, 2003
Inadequate knowledge of coastal conditions and appropriate management measures
Kay and Adler, 2005
Lack of long-term data for key coastal descriptors
Hall, 2002
Fragmented and ineffective institutional arrangements, and weak governance
Moser, 2000
Societal resistance to change
Tompkins et al., 2005a
to be given to development, the environment and social
considerations, as well as short and long-term perspectives
(Visser, 2004). Tools for assessing adaptation needs and options
Since the TAR, many more tools have become available to
support assessments of the need for adaptation and to identify
appropriate interventions (Table 6.10). Adaptation options
Figure 6.11 illustrates the evolution of thinking with respect
to planned adaptation practices in the coastal zone. It also
provides examples of current adaptation interventions. The
capacity of coastal systems to regenerate after disasters, and to
continue to produce resources and services for human
livelihoods and well-being, is being tested with increasing
frequency. This is highlighting the need to consider the resilience
of coastal systems at broader scales and for their adaptive
capacity to be actively managed and nurtured.
Those involved in managing coastal systems have many
practical options for simultaneously reducing risks related to
current climate extremes and variability as well as adapting to
climate change (Yohe, 2000; Daniel, 2001; Queensland
Government, 2001; Townend and Pethick, 2002). This reflects
the fact that many disaster and climate change response
strategies are the same as those which contribute positively to
present-day efforts to implement sustainable development,
including enhancement of social equity, sound environmental
management and wise resource use (Helmer and Hilhorst, 2006).
This will help harmonise coastal planning and climate change
adaptation and, in turn, strengthen the anticipatory response
capacity of institutions (Few et al., 2004a). The timeframes for
development are typically shorter than those for natural changes
in the coastal region, though management is starting to address
this issue. Examples include restoration and management of the
Mississippi River and delta plain (Box 6.4) and management of
coastal erosion in Europe (Eurosion, 2004; Defra, 2006;
MESSINA, 2006). Identifying and selecting adaptation options
can be guided by experience and best practice for reducing the
adverse impacts of analogous, though causally unrelated,
phenomena such as subsidence (natural and/or human-induced)
and tsunami (Olsen et al., 2005). Based on this experience, it is
highly advantageous to integrate and mainstream disaster
management and adaptation to climate variability and change
into wider coastal management, especially given relevant
lessons from recent disasters (Box 6.5).
Table 6.10. Selected tools that support coastal adaptation assessments and interventions.
Selected examples
Indices of vulnerability to sea-level rise
Thieler and Hammar-Klose, 2000; Kokot et al., 2004
Integrated models and frameworks for knowledge management and
adaptation assessment
Geographic information systems for decision support
Warrick et al., 2005; Dinas-Coast Consortium, 2006; SchmidtThomé, 2006
Green and King, 2002; Bartlett and Smith, 2005
Scenarios – a tool to facilitate thinking and deciding about the future
DTI, 2002; Ledoux and Turner, 2002
Community vulnerability assessment tool
NOAA Coastal Services Center, 1999; Flak et al., 2002
Flood simulator for flood and coastal defences and other responses
Discovery Software, 2006; Box 6.2
Estimating the socio-economic and environmental effects of disasters
ECLAC, 2003
ICZM process sustainability – a score card
Milne et al., 2003
Monetary economic valuation of the environment
Ledoux et al., 2001; Ohno, 2001
Evaluating and mapping return periods of extreme events
Bernier et al., 2007
Methods and tools to evaluate vulnerability and adaptation
UNFCCC, 2005
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Chapter 6
Figure 6.11. Evolution of planned coastal adaptation practices.
Klein et al. (2001) describe three trends: (i) growing
recognition of the benefits of ‘soft’ protection and of ‘retreat and
accommodate’ strategies; (ii) an increasing reliance on
technologies to develop and manage information; and (iii) an
enhanced awareness of the need for coastal adaptation to reflect
local natural and socio-economic conditions. The decision as to
which adaptation option is chosen is likely to be largely
influenced by local socio-economic considerations (Knogge et
al., 2004; Persson et al., 2006). It is also important to consider
adaptation measures that reduce the direct threats to the survival
of coastal ecosystems. These include marine protected areas and
‘no take’ reserves. Moser (2000) identified several factors that
prompted local communities to act against coastal erosion. These
included: (i) threats of or actual litigation; (ii) frustration among
local officials regarding lack of clarity in local regulations,
resulting in confusion as well as exposure to litigation; and (iii)
concern over soaring numbers of applications for shorelinehardening structures, since these are perceived to have negative,
often external, environmental impacts. The particular adaptation
strategy adopted depends on many factors, including the value
of the land or infrastructure under threat, the available financial
and economic resources, political and cultural values, the local
application of coastal management policies, and the ability to
understand and implement adaptation options (Yohe, 2000).
Costs and benefits of adaptation
The body of information on costs of adaptation has increased
dramatically since the TAR, covering the range from specific
interventions to global aggregations. Most analyses quantify the
costs of responses to the more certain and specific effects of sealevel rise. Selected indicative and comparative costs of coastal
adaptation measures are presented in Table 6.11. They reveal a
wide range in adaptation costs. But in most populated areas such
interventions have costs lower than damage costs, even when
just considering property losses (Tol, 2002, 2007). Climate
change affects the structural stability and performance of coastal
defence structures and hence significantly raises the costs of
building new structures (Burgess and Townend, 2004) or
upgrading existing structures (Townend and Burgess, 2004).
Financial cost is not the only criterion on which adaptation
should be judged – local conditions and circumstances might
result in a more expensive option being favoured, especially
where multiple benefits result.
Limits and trade-offs in adaptation
Recent studies suggest that there are limits to the extent to
which natural and human coastal systems can adapt even to the
more immediate changes in climate variability and extreme
events, including in more developed countries (Moser, 2005;
Box 6.6). For example, without either adaptation or mitigation,
the impacts of sea-level rise and other climate change such as
more intense storms (Section 6.3.2) will be substantial,
suggesting that some coastal low-lying areas, including atolls,
may become unviable by 2100 (Barnett and Adger, 2003;
Nicholls, 2004), with widespread impacts in many other areas.
This may be reinforced by risk perception and disinvestment
from these vulnerable areas. Adaptation could reduce impacts
by a factor of 10 to 100 (Hall et al., 2006; Tol, 2007) and, apart
from some small island nations, this appears to come at a minor
cost compared to the damage avoided (Nicholls and Tol, 2006).
However, the analysis is idealised, and while adaptation is likely
to be widespread, it remains less clear if coastal societies can
fully realise this potential for adaptation (see Box 6.6).
Adaptation for present climate risks is often inadequate and
the ability to manage further increases in climate-related risks
is frequently lacking. Moreover, increases in coastal
development and population will magnify the risks of coastal
flooding and other hazards (Section 6.2.2; Pielke Jr et al., 2005).
Most measures to compensate and control the salinisation of
coastal aquifers are expensive and laborious (Essink, 2001).
Frequent floods impose enormous constraints on development.
For example, Bangladesh has struggled to put sizeable
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Table 6.11. Selected information on costs and benefits of adaptation.
Optimal (benefit-cost) coastal protection costs and remaining number of people displaced given a 1 m rise in sea level (Tol, 2002) (see
also Figure 6.11).
Protection Costs (109 US$)
Number of People Displaced (106)
OECD Europe
Construction costs for coastal defence in England and Wales (average total cost in US$/km) (Evans et al., 2004a)
Earth embankment
Protected embankment
Dunes (excl. replenishment)
4.7 million
Sea wall
Groynes, breakwater (shingle beach)
Costs (US$/km) to protect against 1 m in rise in sea level for the USA (Neumann et al., 2000)
Dike or levee
450,000 – 2.4 million
Sea wall; bulkhead construction
3.5 million
4.7 million
9 million
450,000 – 12 million
Capital costs (US$/km) for selected coastal management options in New Zealand (Jenks et al., 2005)
Sand dune replanting, with community input (maintenance costs minimal)
6,000 – 24,000
Dune restoration, including education programmes (maintenance costs minimal)
15,000 – 35,000
Dune reshaping and replanting (maintenance costs minimal)
50,000 – 300,000
Sea walls and revetments (maintenance costs high – full rebuild every 20 – 40 years)
900,000 – 1.3 million
Direct losses, costs and benefits of adaptation to 65 cm sea-level rise in Pearl Delta, China (Hay and Mimura, 2005)
Tidal level
Loss (US$ billion)
Cost (US$ billion)
Benefit (US$ billion)
Highest recorded
100 year high water
infrastructure in place to prevent flooding, but with limited
success (Ahmad and Ahmed, 2003). Vietnam’s transition from
state central planning to a more market-oriented economy has
had negative impacts on social vulnerability, with a decrease in
institutional adaptation to environmental risks associated with
flooding and typhoon impacts in the coastal environment
(Adger, 2000). In a practical sense adaptation options for coral
reefs are limited (Buddemeier, 2001) as is the case for most
ecosystems. The continuing observed degradation of many
coastal ecosystems (Section 6.2.2), despite the considerable
efforts to reverse the trend, suggests that it will also be difficult
to alleviate the added stresses resulting from climate change.
Knowledge and skill gaps are important impediments to
understanding potential impacts, and thus to developing
appropriate adaptation strategies for coastal systems (Crimp et
al., 2004). The public often has conflicting views on the issues
of sustainability, hard and soft defences, economics, the
environment and consultation. Identifying the information needs
of local residents, and facilitating access to information, are
integral components in the process of public understanding and
behavioural change (Myatt et al., 2003; Moser, 2005, 2006;
Luers and Moser, 2006).
There are also important trade-offs in adaptation. For
instance, while hard protection can greatly reduce the impacts of
sea level and climate change on socio-economic systems, this is
to the detriment of associated natural ecosystems due to coastal
squeeze (Knogge et al., 2004; Rochelle-Newall et al., 2005).
Managed retreat is an alternative response, but at what cost to
socio-economic systems? General principles that can guide
decision making in this regard are only beginning to be
developed (Eurosion, 2004; Defra, 2006). Stakeholders will be
faced with difficult choices, including questions as to whether
traditional uses should be retained, whether invasive alien
species or native species increasing in abundance should be
controlled, whether planned retreat is an appropriate response
to rising relative sea level or whether measures can be taken to
reduce erosion. Decisions will need to take into account social
and economic as well as ecological concerns (Adam, 2002).
Considering these factors, the US Environmental Protection
Agency is preparing sea-level rise planning maps that assign all
shores along its Atlantic Coast to categories indicating whether
shore protection is certain, likely, unlikely, or precluded by
existing conservation policies (Titus, 2004). In the Humber
estuary (UK) sea-level rise is reducing the standard of
protection, and increasing erosion. Adaptation initiatives include
creation of new intertidal habitat, which may promote more costeffective defences and also helps to offset the loss of protected
sites, including losses due to coastal squeeze (Winn et al., 2003).
Effective policies for developments that relate to the coast are
sensitive to resource use conflicts, resource depletion and to
pollution or resource degradation. Absence of an integrated holistic
approach to policy-making, and a failure to link the process of
policy-making with the substance of policy, results in outcomes
that some would consider inferior when viewed within a
sustainability framework (Noronha, 2004). Proponents of managed
retreat argue that provision of long-term sustainable coastal
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
defences must start with the premise that “coasts need space”
(Rochelle-Newall et al., 2005). Some argue that governments must
work to increase public awareness, scientific knowledge, and
political will to facilitate such a retreat from the “sacrosanct”
existing shoreline (Pethick, 2002). Others argue that the highest
priority should be the transfer of property rights in lesser developed
areas, to allow for changing setbacks in anticipation of an
encroaching ocean. This makes inland migration of wetlands and
beaches an expectation well before the existing shoreline becomes
sacrosanct (Titus, 2001). Property rights and land use often make
it difficult to achieve such goals, as shown by the post-Katrina
recovery of New Orleans. Economic, social, ecological, legal and
political lines of thinking have to be combined in order to achieve
meaningful policies for the sustainable development of
groundwater reserves and for the protection of subsurface
ecosystems (Danielopol et al., 2003). Socio-economic and cultural
conditions frequently present barriers to choosing and
implementing the most appropriate adaptation to sea-level rise.
Many such barriers can often be resolved by way of education at
all levels, including local seminars and workshops for relevant
stakeholders (Kobayashi, 2004; Tompkins et al., 2005a).
Institutional strengthening and other interventions are also of
importance (Bettencourt et al., 2005).
Adaptive capacity
Adaptive capacity is the ability of a system to evolve in order
to accommodate climate changes or to expand the range of
variability with which it can cope (see Chapter 17 for further
explanation). The adaptive capacity of coastal communities to
cope with the effects of severe climate impacts declines if there
is a lack of physical, economic and institutional capacities to
reduce climate-related risks and hence the vulnerability of highrisk communities and groups. But even a high adaptive capacity
may not translate into effective adaptation if there is no
commitment to sustained action (Luers and Moser, 2006).
Current pressures are likely to adversely affect the integrity of
coastal ecosystems and thereby their ability to cope with
additional pressures, including climate change and sea-level rise.
This is a particularly significant factor in areas where there is a
high level of development, large coastal populations and high
levels of interference with coastal systems. Natural coastal
habitats, such as dunes and wetlands, have a buffering capacity
which can help reduce the adverse impacts of climate change.
Equally, improving shoreline management for non-climate
change reasons will also have benefits in terms of responding to
sea-level rise and climate change (Nicholls and Klein, 2005).
Adopting a static policy approach towards sea-level rise
conflicts with sustaining a dynamic coastal system that responds
to perturbations via sediment movement and long-term
evolution (Crooks, 2004). In the case of coastal megacities,
maintaining and enhancing both resilience and adaptive capacity
for weather-related hazards are critically important policy and
management goals. The dual approach brings benefits in terms
of linking analysis of present and future hazardous conditions. It
also enhances the capacity for disaster prevention and
preparedness, disaster recovery and for adaptation to climate
change (Klein et al., 2003).
Chapter 6 Constraints and limitations
Yohe and Tol (2002) assessed the potential contributions of
various adaptation options to improving systems’ coping
capacities. They suggest focusing attention directly on the
underlying determinants of adaptive capacity (see Section
17.3.1). The future status of coastal wetlands appears highly
sensitive to societal attitudes to the environment (Table 6.1), and
this could be a more important control of their future status than
sea-level rise (Nicholls, 2004). This highlights the importance of
the socio-economic conditions (e.g., institutional capabilities;
informed and engaged public) as a fundamental control of
impacts with and without climate change (Tompkins et al.,
2005b). Hazard awareness education and personal hazard
experience are significant and important contributors to reducing
community vulnerability. But despite such experience and
education, some unnecessary and avoidable losses associated
with tropical cyclone and storm surge hazards are still highly
likely to occur (Anderson-Berry, 2003). These losses will differ
across socio-economic groups, as has been highlighted recently
by Hurricane Katrina. The constraints and limitations on
adaptation by coastal systems, both natural and human, highlight
the benefits for deeper public discourse on climate risk
management, adaptation needs, challenges and allocation and
use of resources. Capacity-strengthening strategies
Policies that enhance social and economic equity, reduce
poverty, increase consumption efficiencies, decrease the
discharge of wastes, improve environmental management, and
increase the quality of life of vulnerable and other marginal
coastal groups can collectively advance sustainable
development, and hence strengthen adaptive capacity and coping
mechanisms. Many proposals to strengthen adaptive capacity
have been made including: mainstreaming the building of
resilience and reduction of vulnerability (Agrawala and van
Aalst, 2005; McFadden et al., 2007b); full and open data
exchange (Hall, 2002); scenarios as a tool for communities to
explore future adaptation policies and practices (Poumadère et
al., 2005); public participation, co-ordination among oceansrelated agencies (West, 2003); research on responses of
ecological and socio-economic systems, including the
interactions between ecological, socio-economic and climate
systems (Parson et al., 2003); research on linkages between
upstream and downstream process to underpin comprehensive
coastal management plans (Contreras-Espinosa and Warner,
2004); research to generate useful, usable and actionable
information that helps close the science-policy gap (Hay and
Mimura, 2006); strengthening institutions and enhancing
regional co-operation and co-ordination (Bettencourt et al.,
2005); and short-term training for practitioners at all levels of
management (Smith, 2002a).
The links between adaptation and mitigation in
coastal and low-lying areas
Adaptation (e.g., coastal planning and management) and
mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) are responses
to climate change, which can be considered together (King,
Chapter 6
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
2004) (see Chapter 18). The response of sea-level rise to
mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions is slower than for other
climate factors (Meehl et al., 2007) and mitigation alone will not
stop growth in potential impacts (Nicholls and Lowe, 2006).
However, mitigation decreases the rate of future rise and the
ultimate rise, limiting and slowing the need for adaptation as
shown by Hall et al. (2005). Hence Nicholls and Lowe (2006)
and Tol (2007) argue that adaptation and mitigation need to be
considered together when addressing the consequences of
climate change for coastal areas. Collectively these interventions
can provide a more robust response to human-induced climate
change than consideration of each policy alone.
Adaptation will provide immediate and longer-term
reductions in risk in the specific area that is adapting. On the
other hand, mitigation reduces future risks in the longer term
and at the global scale. Identifying the optimal mix is
problematic as it requires consensus on many issues, including
definitions, indicators and the significance of thresholds.
Importantly, mitigation removes resources from adaptation, and
benefits are not immediate, so investment in adaptation may
appear preferable, especially in developing countries (Goklany,
2005). The opposite view of the need for urgent mitigation has
recently been argued (Stern, 2007). Importantly, the limits to
adaptation may mean that the costs of climate change are
underestimated (Section 6.6.3), especially in the long term.
These findings highlight the need to consider impacts beyond
2100, in order to assess the full implications of different
mitigation and adaptation policy mixes (Box 6.6).
6.7 Conclusions: implications for
sustainable development
The main conclusions are reported in the Executive Summary
and are reviewed here in the context of sustainable development.
Coastal ecosystems are dynamic, spatially constrained, and
attractive for development. This leads to increasing multiple
stresses under current conditions (Section 6.2.2), often resulting
in significant degradation and losses, especially to economies
highly dependent on coastal resources, such as small islands.
Trends in human development along coasts amplify their
vulnerability, even if climate does not change. For example, in
China 100 million people moved from inland to the coast in the
last twenty years (Dang, 2003), providing significant benefits to
the national economy, but presenting major challenges for
coastal management. This qualitative trend is mirrored in most
populated coastal areas and raises the conflict between
conservation and development (Green and Penning-Rowsell,
1999). Equally the pattern of development can have tremendous
inertia (Klein et al., 2002) and decisions made today may have
implications centuries into the future (Box 6.6).
Climate change and sea-level rise increase the challenge of
achieving sustainable development in coastal areas, with the
most serious impediments in developing countries, in part due to
their lower adaptive capacity. It will make achieving the
Millennium Development Goals (UN Secretary General, 2006b)
more difficult, especially the Goal of Ensuring Environmental
Sustainability (reversing loss of environmental resources, and
improving lives of slum dwellers, many of whom are coastal).
Adapting effectively to climate change and sea-level rise will
involve substantial investment, with resources diverted from
other productive uses. Even with the large investment possible
in developed countries, residual risk remains, as shown by
Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (Box 6.4), requiring a
portfolio of responses that addresses human safety across all
events (protection, warnings, evacuation, etc.) and also can
address multiple goals (e.g., protection of the environment as
well as adaptation to climate change) (Evans et al., 2004a;
Jonkman et al., 2005). Long-term sea-level rise projections mean
that risks will grow for many generations unless there is a
substantial and ongoing investment in adaptation (Box 6.6).
Hence, sustainability for coastal areas appears to depend upon a
combination of adaptation and mitigation (Sections 6.3.2 and
There will be substantial benefits if plans are developed and
implemented in order to address coastal changes due to climate
and other factors, such as those processes that also contribute to
relative sea-level rise (Rodolfo and Siringan, 2006). This
requires increased effort to move from reactive to more
proactive responses in coastal management. Strengthening
integrated multidisciplinary and participatory approaches will
also help improve the prospects for sustaining coastal resources
and communities. There is also much to be learnt from
experience and retrospective analyses of coastal disasters
(McRobie et al., 2005). Technological developments are likely
to assist this process, most especially in softer technologies
associated with monitoring (Bradbury et al., 2005), predictive
modelling and broad-scale assessment (Burgess et al., 2003;
Cowell et al., 2003a; Boruff et al., 2005) and assessment of
coastal management actions, both present and past (Klein et al.,
2001). Traditional practices can be an important component of
the coastal management toolkit.
6.8 Key uncertainties, research
gaps and priorities
This assessment shows that the level of knowledge is not
consistent with the potential severity of the problem of climate
change and coastal zones. While knowledge is not adequate in
any aspect, uncertainty increases as we move from the natural
sub-system to the human sub-system, with the largest
uncertainties concerning their interaction (Figure 6.1). An
understanding of this interaction is critical to a comprehensive
understanding of human vulnerability in coastal and low-lying
areas and should include the role of institutional adaptation and
public participation (Section 6.4.3). While research is required
at all scales, improved understanding at the physiographic unit
scale (e.g., coastal cells, deltas or estuaries) would have
particular benefits, and support adaptation to climate change
and wider coastal management. There also remains a strong
focus on sea-level rise, which needs to be broadened to include
all the climate drivers in the coastal zone (Table 6.2). Finally,
any response to climate change has to address the other non345
Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Chapter 6
Box 6.6. Long-term sea-level rise impacts (beyond 2100)
The timescales of ocean warming are much longer than those of surface air temperature rise. As a result, sea-level rise due to
thermal expansion is expected to continue at a significant rate for centuries, even if climate forcing is stabilised (Meehl et al.,
2005; Wigley, 2005). Deglaciation of small land-based glaciers, and possibly the Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheets,
may contribute large additional rises, with irreversible melting of Greenland occurring for a sustained global temperature rise of
1.1 to 3.8°C above today’s global average temperature: this is likely to happen by 2100 under the A1B scenario, for instance
(Meehl et al., 2007). More than 10 m of sea-level rise is possible, albeit over very long time spans (centuries or longer), and this
has been termed ‘the commitment to sea-level rise’. The potential exposure to these changes, just based on today’s socioeconomic conditions, is significant both regionally and globally (Table 6.12) and growing (Section 6.3.1). Thus there is a conflict
between long-term sea-level rise and present-day human development patterns and migration to the coast (Nicholls et al., 2006).
The rate of sea-level rise is uncertain and a large rise (>0.6 m to 0.7 m/century) remains a low probability/high impact risk (Meehl
et al., 2007). Some analyses suggest that protection would be an economically optimum response in most developed locations,
even for an arbitrary 2 m/century scenario (Anthoff et al., 2006). However, sea-level rise will accumulate beyond 2100, increasing
impact potential (Nicholls and Lowe, 2006). Further, there are several potential constraints to adaptation which are poorly
understood (Section 6.4.3; Nicholls and Tol, 2006; Tol et al., 2006). This raises long-term questions about the implications of ‘hold
the line’ versus ‘retreat the line’ adaptation policies and, more generally, how best to approach coastal spatial planning. While
shoreline management is starting to address such issues for the 21st century (Eurosion, 2004; Defra, 2006), the long timescales
of sea-level rise suggest that coastal management, including spatial planning, needs to take a long-term view on adaptation to
sea-level rise and climate change, especially with long-life infrastructure such as nuclear power stations.
Table 6.12. Indicative estimates of regional exposure as a function of elevation and baseline (1995) socio-economics. MER – market exchange
rates (after Anthoff et al., 2006).
Exposure by factor and elevation above mean high water
Land area (km2)
Population (millions)
GDP MER (US$ billions)
Latin America
North America
Global (Total)
climate drivers of coastal change in terms of understanding
potential impacts and responses, as they will interact with
climate change. As recognised in earlier IPCC assessments and
the Millennium Ecosystem and LOICZ Assessments (Agardy
et al., 2005; Crossland et al., 2005), these other drivers
generally exacerbate the impacts of climate change.
The following research initiatives would substantially
reduce these uncertainties and increase the effectiveness and
science base of long-term coastal planning and policy
Establishing better baselines of actual coastal changes,
including local factors and sea-level rise, and the climate and
non-climate drivers, through additional observations and
expanded monitoring. This would help to better establish the
causal links between climate and coastal change which tend to
remain inferred rather than observed (Section 6.2.5), and
support model development.
• Improving predictive capacity for future coastal change due
to climate and other drivers, through field observations,
experiments and model development. A particular
challenge will be understanding thresholds under multiple
drivers of change (Sections 6.2.4; 6.4.1).
• Developing a better understanding of the adaptation of the
human systems in the coastal zone. At the simplest this
could be an inventory of assets at risk, but much more
could be done in terms of deepening our understanding of
the qualitative trends suggested in Table 6.1 (see also
Section 6.4.2) and issues of adaptive capacity.
Chapter 6
• Improving impact and vulnerability assessments within an
integrated assessment framework that includes naturalhuman sub-system interactions. This requires a strong
inter-disciplinary approach and the targeting of the most
vulnerable areas, such as populated megadeltas and deltas,
small islands and coastal cities (Section 6.4.3). Improving
systems of coastal planning and zoning and institutions that
can enforce regulations for clearer coastal governance is
required in many countries.
• Developing methods for identification and prioritisation of
coastal adaptation options. The effectiveness and efficiency
of adaptation interventions need to be considered, including
immediate benefits and the longer term goal of sustainable
development (Sections 6.6; 6.7).
• Developing and expanding networks to share knowledge and
experience on climate change and coastal management
among coastal scientists and practitioners.
These issues need to be explored across the range of spatial
scales: from local to global scale assessments and, given the long
timescales of sea-level rise, implications beyond the 21st century
should not be ignored. Thus this research agenda needs to be
taken forward across a broad range of activities from the needs
of coastal management and adaptation to global integrated
assessments and the benefits of mitigation. While some existing
global research efforts are pushing in the direction that is
recommended, e.g., the IGBP/IHDP LOICZ Science Plan
(Kremer et al., 2004), much more effort is required to achieve
these goals, especially those referring to the human, integrated
assessment and adaptation goals, and at local to regional scales
(Few et al., 2004a).
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