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  • Jacob Bourne

We’re Doing a ‘Mediocre to Poor’ Job of Protecting U.S. Coastlines from Climate Change

The majority of U.S. coastal and Great Lakes states are doing a mediocre to poor job of dealing with coastal erosion and adapting to sea-level rise, according to a report from The Surfrider Foundation, a coastal protection nonprofit.

California Coastline
View of historic Bixby Creek Bridge along world famous Highway 1 in Monterey County, CA. Credit: Shutterstock

This is a concerning finding as 40% of Americans live within the coastal zone and are vulnerable to sea-level rise and other climate change impacts. Between 1960 and 2020, some parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf coasts experienced more than 8 inches of sea-level rise, based on data from the EPA. Additionally, climate change is changing the water cycle leading to extreme rainfall events and subsequent flooding. The planet continues to warm, evidenced by many record-breaking events in 2021, including the Arctic reaching 118 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning that the cryosphere will continue to melt, pushing sea levels higher.

The report found that out of 30 states and Puerto Rico, only 11 states earned a grade of 'A' or 'B,' with a majority making a 'C' or lower in enhancing coastal protection. Many of these low-performing states have been significantly impacted by extreme weather events.

Some states performed well in sediment management, implementing higher development standards and responding to sea-level rise. California, Maine and Maryland earned 'A' grades, while Delaware, Texas, Connecticut, New Jersey, Hawaii, North Carolina and Georgia elevated their grade average from the previous assessment. Collectively, states in the Southeast, Island and Mid-Atlantic earned a 'C' average, and the Great Lakes and Gulf states scored a 'D' average.

The lowest-performing states were Alabama, Ohio and Indiana, which earned 'F' grades. Alaska, Florida, Puerto Rico, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi all earned a grade of 'D.'

"After another year of devastating hurricanes, heat waves, fires and flooding, the climate crisis continues to rapidly grow," said Surfrider Foundation's Coastal Preservation Manager, Stefanie Sekich-Quinn. "Stakes are high, and elected officials must take bold actions to protect our ocean and coasts from the unbridled impacts of climate change. While our 2021 report found an increase in grades, states continue to build new development every year in coastal hazard areas, which is extremely shortsighted and problematic — especially with the uptick in extreme weather and sea-level rise. We hope our report recommendations improve coastal management and empower citizens to work with decision-makers to safeguard coastal communities."

The report also warned that 50% of U.S. coastlines are at high or very high risk of coastal erosion involving the loss of sandy beaches and land areas caused by sea-level rise, high-intensity storms, geological changes and the disruption of natural sand supply. Sand is a naturally occurring and protective aspect of many coastlines, but it’s also a substance in high demand for the production of cement, glass, asphalt, fracking and beach replenishment, leading to a global loss of sand resources.

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“Developments, such as the paving of watersheds, damming of rivers and construction of shoreline structures interrupt sand transport, block the flow of sediment to the coastline and prohibit the natural refurbishment of sand on our coasts,” the report stated. “Coastal erosion typically does not pose a noticeable problem until structures become threatened and beaches diminish.”

In light of the dismal performance in coastline protection, The Surfrider Foundation recommended adopting setback policies for coastal and Great Lakes states, stricter building codes, limiting coastal armoring projects in sensitive habitat areas, implementing living shorelines restoration projects and managed retreat policies. The foundation also encouraged the passage of specific legislation to bolster coastline protection and referenced California’s Coastal Act passed in 1976, regarded as one strongest environmental laws in the nation that protects coastal resources and specifies details for shoreline management.


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