Deadly Waters: Rising Seas Putting Wildlife at Risk

Sea levels worldwide are rising at increasing rates as temperatures warm due to climate change. If we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas pollution, those levels will rise another 3 or 4 feet on average — and perhaps up to 6.5 feet or more — within this century. Some areas are particularly vulnerable. In the United States, sea levels at hotspots along the East Coast, Gulf of Mexico and northwestern Hawaiian Islands are rising three to four times faster than the global average.

Rising seas pose a major risk to our nation’s wildlife. The United States is home to 1,383 federally protected threatened and endangered species, many of which depend on coastal and island habitats for survival. Rising seas and increasingly dangerous storm surges threaten to submerge and erode their habitat, and make the groundwater more saline — killing coastal plant communities and ruining drinking water.


A groundbreaking report from the Center finds that 233 threatened and endangered species in 23 coastal states are at risk from sea-level rise. This means that, left unchecked, rising seas threaten the survival of 17 percent — one out of six — of our nation’s federally protected species. The report highlights five at-risk species living in different parts of our coasts: the Hawaiian monk seal, Key deer, loggerhead sea turtle, Delmarva peninsula fox squirrel, western snowy plover. The report provides a roadmap of the priority actions needed to protect wildlife from sea-level rise impacts — foremost among them deep and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas pollution, protecting natural coastal buffers, and making room for wildlife to move inland as the oceans rise.

The Center has been taking action to protect wildlife from the impacts of sea-level rise for years — through our work to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, the root of the problem, and protecting vulnerable coastal species and their habitats under the Endangered Species Act. In 2013 we won protection for three Florida plants specifically threatened by sea-level rise: the aboriginal prickly apple, Florida semaphore cactus and Cape Sable thoroughwort. In 2010 we filed a scientific petition to provide Endangered Species Act protection to 404 Southeast species, many of which are at high risk from sea-level rise, such as the MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow and Florida Keys mole skink. And we’ve followed up with legal action to make sure they get the protections they deserve. As part of a 2011 landmark agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, protection decisions are mandated for all of these Southeast species, as well as a suite of coastal species that were on a waiting list for protection and are at serious risk from sea-level rise, such as the Florida bonneted bat. We’re also working to make sure our wildlife agencies protect upland habitat for endangered species living along the coast so that they have places to move in the face of rising seas.


Hawaiian monk seal pup photo by Koa Matsuoka/Flickr