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Coastal Vulnerability Assessment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore to Sea-Level Rise, USGS Open-File Report 2004-1064

Map of Coastal Vulnerability

Skip past contents informationTable of Contents link to Title Page Link to Abstract Page Link to Introduction Page Link to Data Ranking Page Link to Cape Hatteras National Seashore Page Link to Methology Page Link to Geologic Variables Page Link to Physical Process Variables Page Link to Calculating the Vulnerability Index Page Link to Results Page Link to Discussion Page Link to Conclusions Page Link to References Page


The National Park Service (NPS) is responsible for managing nearly 12,000 km (7,500 miles) of shoreline along oceans and lakes. In 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in partnership with the NPS Geologic Resources Division, began conducting hazard assessments of future sea-level change by creating maps to assist NPS in managing its valuable coastal resources. This report presents the results of a vulnerability assessment for Cape Hatteras National Seashore (CAHA), highlighting areas that are likely to be most affected by future sea-level rise.

Global sea level has risen approximately 18 centimeters (7.1 inches) in the past century (Douglas, 1997). Climate models predict an additional rise of 48 cm (18.9 in.) by 2100 (IPCC, 2001), which is more than double the rate of rise for the 20th century. Potential coastal impacts of sea-level rise include shoreline erosion, saltwater intrusion into groundwater aquifers, inundation of wetlands and estuaries, and threats to cultural and historic resources as well as infrastructure. Predicted accelerated global sea-level rise has generated a need in coastal geology to determine the response of a coastline to sea-level rise. However, an accurate and quantitative approach to predicting coastal change is difficult to establish. Even the kinds of data necessary to make shoreline response predictions are the subject of scientific debate. A number of predictive approaches have been proposed (National Research Council, 1990), including: 1) extrapolation of historical data (e.g., coastal erosion rates), 2) static inundation modeling, 3) application of a simple geometric model (e.g., the Bruun Rule), 4) application of a sediment dynamics/budget model, or 5) Monte Carlo (probabilistic) simulation based on parameterized physical forcing variables. However, each of these approaches has inadequacies or can be invalid for certain applications (National Research Council, 1990; 1995). Additionally, shoreline response to sea-level change is further complicated by human modifications of the natural coast such as beach nourishment projects, and engineered structures such as seawalls, revetments, groins, and jetties. Understanding how a natural or modified coast will respond to sea-level change is essential to preserving vulnerable coastal resources.

The primary challenge in predicting shoreline response to sea-level rise is identifying and quantifying the important variables that contribute to coastal evolution in a given area. In order to address the multi-faceted task of predicting sea-level rise impact, the USGS has implemented a methodology to identify areas that may be most vulnerable to impacts of future sea-level rise (see Hammar-Klose and Thieler, 2001). This approach combines the coastal system's susceptibility to change with its natural ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions, yielding a quantitative, although relative, measure of the shoreline's natural vulnerability to the effects of sea-level rise. The methodology focuses on six variables which strongly influence coastal evolution:

1) Geomorphology

2) Historical shoreline change rate

3) Regional coastal slope

4) Relative sea-level change

5) Mean significant wave height

6) Mean tidal range

These variables can be divided into two groups: 1) geologic variables and 2) physical process variables. The geologic variables are geomorphology, historic shoreline change rate, and coastal slope; they account for a shoreline's relative resistance to erosion, long-term erosion/accretion trend, and its susceptibility to flooding, respectively. The physical process variables include sea-level change, significant wave height, and tidal range, all of which contribute to the inundation hazards of a particular section of coastline over time scales from hours to centuries. A relatively simple vulnerability ranking system (Table 1) allows the six variables to be incorporated into an equation that produces a coastal vulnerability index (CVI). The CVI can be used by scientists and park managers to evaluate the likelihood that physical change may occur along a particular shoreline as sea level continues to rise. Additionally, NPS staff will be able to incorporate information provided by this vulnerability assessment technique into general management plans.

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