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Saving our Estuaries: EPA's Climate Ready Estuaries Program Plans Ahead

Agency provides direct aid to implement adaption plans for climate change-related disaster.

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Recent scientific evidence indicates that the sea level along California’s coast could rise up to 55 inches as a result of climate change by the year 2100, just a single lifetime, causing mass flooding and billions of dollars in damages.
             
Sea level rise is unfortunately not the only effect of climate change currently plaguing the San Francisco Estuary and dozens of other estuarine systems around the country. These fragile environments are especially vulnerable to several variations in weather, including increased sea surface and air temperatures, changes in precipitation and storm intensity, and ocean acidification.

Enter the Climate Ready Estuaries program (CRE), a partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Estuary Programs (NEPs). Each NEP is made up of representatives from federal, state, and local government agencies responsible for managing the estuary's resources, as well as members of the community, such as citizens, business leaders, educators, and researchers. Twenty-eight estuary programs are currently working to safeguard the health of some of our Nation's most important coastal waters.

The primary goal of the partnership is to address climate change in coastal areas and prevent ecological catastrophe from occurring. This joint effort is working to enhance knowledge in the NEPs to enable them to develop local leadership and expertise to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Since CRE’s inception in 2008, 15 NEPs have become Partners and received more than $850,000 in direct technical assistance from the program. Additionally, more than $450,000 has been distributed through start-up grants. CRE has also developed the online Coastal Toolkit, an information resource for estuaries and coastal communities.

In 2008, the first six CRE pilot programs were launched. The San Francisco Estuary Partnership (SFEP) and Massachusetts Bay Program (MBP) were among these and, with EPA’s Global Change Research Program, initiated climate change vulnerability assessments to consider how salt marsh and mudflat ecosystems may be affected by changes in climate drivers such as temperature, precipitation, and storms.

Drs. Jordan West and Amanda Babson of EPA were integral members of the scientific teams that conducted both vulnerability assessments. In the spring of 2010, expert elicitations were held for both the SFEP and MBP projects. An expert elicitation (EE) is a process using expert judgment to inform decision-making when certain conditions exist. These include situations in which uncertainties are large, empirical data may not yet be available, more than one conceptual model can explain available data, and/or technical judgments are required to assess assumptions.

Conducted during a two-day workshop, the SFEP and MBP expert elicitations guided the experts through a series of questions regarding each aspect of the salt marsh or mudflat system. Conclusions then were drawn from the data derived from the experts’ judgments about climate change effects.

This innovative form of the EE, which had never before been applied to ecosystems, provided results that led to valuable implications for coastal area management and also produced an unintended benefit. “Engaging in the exercise caused [the experts] to view the system in a new way,” says Dr. West. “It sparked conversations among colleagues that may not have occurred otherwise. It really got the scientists and managers to work together and connect.”

Drs. Babson and West presented the project’s preliminary results in various locations; in early October 2010, Dr. Babson traveled to Portsmouth, NH to present MBP results at the Regional Association for Research on the Gulf of Maine Annual Meeting. Exit EPA Disclaimer In November 2010, Dr. West presented at the Restore America’s Estuaries Conference in Galveston, Texas. In the next six to ten months, the Agency will release separate reports chronicling the SFEP and MBP projects. A third report, focusing on an evaluation of the methodology and its measures of success, will follow.

Drs. Babson and West hope that the effort won’t stop there. “We are interested in doing follow-on work in two areas,” says West. “We hope to develop and refine the method into a users manual, and also work closely with NEPs in implementing their adaption plans.” While no definitive plans for such an undertaking currently exist, the positive outcomes of this project suggest that they one day could.

The effects of climate change can already be seen along coastal areas—such as the San Francisco Estuary and its rising waters. However, with programs like Climate Ready Estuaries and the EPA partnerships described above, plans can be put in place that hopefully will prevent these valuable ecosystems from being destroyed.

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