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How Will Climate Change Affect Lagoon Ecosystems?


Students and faculty of the NSF-funded Coastal Institute IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship) Project at the University of Rhode Island completed a comprehensive review of the future of lagoon ecosystems under the expected increases in sea level, temperature and storminess that will result from global climate change.

Coastal lagoons constitute 13% of the world’s coastlines, support highly productive ecosystems, and provide a range of natural services that society values. As an interface between land and sea, lagoons are dynamic. They are formed and modified by sediment transport processes and are typically shallow and productive habitats. Lagoons are particularly susceptible to the impacts of global climate change. Along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, the physical and ecological characteristics of coastal lagoons are expected to shift dramatically as a result of observed and anticipated changes in temperature, precipitation, sea level, and storm intensity. Impacts will range from changes in flushing regime, freshwater inputs and water chemistry, to complete inundation and loss of some barrier-lagoon systems. Alterations to salinity, nutrient and sediment delivery, and the timing of ecological processes will be accompanied by concomitant changes in the human communities that are associated with these systems. Lagoon environments and ecosystems are highly valued by society in a complex web of livelihood provision, ecosystem services, recreational use, and a human sense of place. Managing coastal lagoons in the context of global climate change will be critical. While approaches will vary depending on local conditions, all management scenarios will need to adapt to and consider a full spectrum of social values, including those not easily amenable to quantification.

We developed a nomenclature of the benefits humans derive from lagoons and recognize four general classes of values: pragmatic, scholarly, inspirational, and tacit. Because they are implicit, difficult to articulate, and extremely qualitative, tacit values are often missing from scientific reports and surveys which focus on more measurable values. Nonetheless, tacit values underpin all other categories of human values, and can, therefore, have a strong influence over human behavior. Articulation and inclusion of the full spectrum of human values, especially tacit values, will facilitate and support nimble adaptive management of coastal lagoon ecosystems in the context of global climate change.

Address Goals

Discovery: The URI Coastal Institute synthesis of climate change impacts on coastal lagoons is a textbook example of the multidisciplinary and integrative research approach advocated by the NSF IGERT. The study encompasses physical science, natural science, social science, and human science. All of these disciplines are represented among the authors and the resulting paper (In Review in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and Society) is a seamless integration of these perspectives.

Communication: The faculty and trainees of the URI IGERT Project are presenting the results of this research at scientific conferences and are developing a public workshop for Rhode Island citizens that live near lagoon ecosystems. The purpose of the workshop is to review how coastal communities will be impacted by climate change and how current coastal zone management policy is working to incorporate these anticipated impacts. The workshop will expand the scientific literacy of citizens in this region of New England.