Outlook is bleak for state shoreline

Report says climate change will destroy more than half of E. Shore beaches

May 23, 2008|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

More than half the beaches on Maryland's Eastern Shore will be destroyed over this century by rising sea levels driven by global warming, a new report concludes.

The study by the National Wildlife Federation says the outlook wouldn't be as bad if local governments hadn't allowed so much development along the shoreline, preventing beaches from shifting inland as water levels rise.

As more people build condos, roads and rock walls along the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic seaboard, the rising sea levels will shrink the amount of space remaining for beaches and wetlands. And diamondback terrapin and other animals will be devastated by the loss of habitat, the report says.

"This report shows just how vulnerable the Chesapeake Bay, a national treasure, is to global warming," said Beth McGee, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Global warming threatens the very way of life and existence of watermen communities."

The report is based on calculations by a United Nations panel of climate experts that predict global sea levels will rise up to 27 inches by the year 2100. The accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - mostly from industry - is acting like an insulating blanket around the Earth, melting glaciers and expanding the volume of water in the oceans.

"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal," the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in November, echoing similar conclusions by the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Supreme Court.

A consultant for the National Wildlife Foundation took the projections and used a computerized model to calculate what they could mean for marshes and shorelines around the Chesapeake Bay.

Rising sea levels will likely mean that 415 square miles of open water will replace beaches and coastal land in the Chesapeake Bay area over the next century, according to the federation analysis.

The problem of rising waters is compounded in this region by lands that have been slowly sinking since the retreat of glaciers thousands of years ago.

Sixty nine percent of beach acreage on the Chesapeake Bay will be swallowed by rising waters by 2100, along with 58 percent of oceanfront beaches, the report says.

Smith and Tangier islands - home to many bay watermen - will be washed away. And the Assateague Island National Seashore will be sliced apart by waves by 2100 and remain only as a slender and broken thread, the report projects.

Higher water temperatures also will mean more low-oxygen dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and less aquatic vegetation, the report says.

"We face the prospect of losing much we treasure about the bay - its beaches, wildlife, and prized fishing - unless we prepare for the sea level rise that our modeling shows will happen," said Patty Glick, senior global warming specialist for the National Wildlife Federation.

To reduce the amount of damage, industry needs to cut its output of greenhouse gases by 80 percent by midcentury, Glick said.

A bill to require such reductions in Maryland was endorsed by Gov. Martin O'Malley but failed in the General Assembly this year after labor unions and industries complained that the regulations would hurt business during a slowing economy. On the national level, the three remaining major candidates for president have all endorsed mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.

Another step Maryland and other states can take to preserve beaches and wetlands is to restrict construction of rock walls to armor homes built in shoreline areas, Glick said. Soft and natural shores would allow beaches and wetlands to move inland as waters rise, she said.

Less waterfront housing also would mean fewer people killed when severe storms strike, Glick said.

"We need to take bold new steps to discourage development in a lot of these high-risk areas, which will not only protect natural habitat but also keep people out of harm's way with coastal storms," Glick said.

State Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, a Republican representing Carroll and Frederick counties, said imposing more restrictions on development and greenhouse gases would drive jobs out of the Maryland.

"I think it would be harmful for the economy. But they don't care about that," Brinkley said. "They don't care about people's lives or livelihoods. They are on this almost religious fervor, this left environmental movement. They claim most of it's based on science, and I think most of it is based on faith and fear."

The National Wildlife Federation report suggests that allowing global warming to continue will also have an economic impact.

About 161,000 acres of marsh will be consumed by rising water levels over the next century, eliminating breeding grounds for fish and birds. This could threaten waterfowl hunting and fishing in Maryland and Virginia, which contribute roughly $725 million to the region's economy.

J. Emmett Duffy, a professor of marine science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said that climate change is disrupting the life cycles of plants and animals at the center of the region's economy

Global warming has meant that springtime in the Chesapeake region is starting three weeks earlier than a half century ago, and the summers are hotter.

An especially hot July three years ago killed off much of the eelgrass in the southern bay that blue crabs need as habitat, he said. Other species that require cooler conditions, such as winter flounder and soft shell clams, might also disappear from the bay, he said.

"Climate change is not a future threat," Duffy said. "It's happening now, and it's already affecting many plants and wildlife."

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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