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Visits to Assateague Seen Needing Ferries Due to Warming

August 29, 2012

Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland may turn to passenger ferries as stronger coastal storms and rising sea levels driven by climate change threaten bridge access to the park, according to a report.

Access to Assateague Island and six other national seashores on the East Coast is one area where global warming is having an impact, according to a report today from the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Beaches, dunes and marshes are more vulnerable to erosion, higher temperatures may make going to the beach intolerable while wildlife and ecosystems are at risk.

The National Park Service “is for the first time saying that they are going to prepare to transition from bridge and road access,” Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and co-author of the report, said on a conference call with reporters. “They’re preparing for when they do lose the bridge access.”

Average global sea levels rose about seven inches (17.8 centimeters) in the 20th century as a result of warming that is now “unequivocal,” according to an Aug. 20 statement from the American Meteorological Society. Man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are the dominant cause, the group said.

“Climate change is the greatest threat that our national parks have ever faced,” Theo Spencer, senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “If we don’t cut the amount of heat-trapping pollution that we spew into the air, these special places that Americans love will never be the same.”

Cape Cod

The national seashores in today’s report include Assateague Island, Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Fire Island in New York, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout in North Carolina, Cumberland Island in Georgia and Canaveral in Florida. More than 11 million people visited the parks in 2011 spending more than $566 million.

The beaches are getting warmer with average annual air temperatures climbing as much as 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (one degree Celsius) in the decade that began in 2001 compared with the period from 1961 to 1990. By 2090, temperatures may be as much as 6.5 degrees higher at Fire Island, making it as hot as recent summers in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina.

“Beaches are traditional spots for a break from the heat, but a tipping point could be reached, with baking heat trumping cooling breezes,” according to the report. “When temperatures are in the 80’s and 90’s, going to the beach may offer relief. But when temperatures are in the 100’s, the experience could be a lot less enjoyable.”

Sea Levels

Climate change also is magnifying the natural forces of wind and waves that shape coastal areas. Warmer sea surface temperatures are fueling stronger coastal storms and higher wave heights. Half of the land at Fire Island, Assateague Island, Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout and Canaveral are at a high risk of being submerged this century if sea levels rise by one meter, according to the report.

“The biggest threat ultimately to these seashores is that they will be largely or even entirely covered by the ocean,” Saunders said.

Wildlife impacts include a threat to sea turtles, which nest from Assateague Island to Canaveral. The gender of a sea turtle is influenced by the temperature of the sand in which they nest and more females are hatched from eggs incubating at higher temperatures.

Sea Turtles

“We’re having more female sea turtles born,” Saunders said. “If this trend continues, we’ll have more and more females and fewer and fewer males, and at some point we could have nothing but females.”

At Assateague Island, climate-change driven impacts could make it difficult for visitors to enjoy the seashore, according to the park service, which manages the island. Beach erosion and storm-driven flooding will make roads, parking lots and visitor centers “increasingly more difficult and costly to maintain,” according to a 2010 report on the impacts of climate change.

Park managers at Assateague are considering a shift to commercial ferry service as the time needed to restore bridges and roads after storms cut visitor access, according to a report by the National Park Service.

“Climate change is impacting these places now,” Spencer said. “I went to Assateague when I was a kid and it’s a lot different then than it was now. The national park system is something uniquely American and I think Americans can associate with the issue of climate change better when its put in the context of places they love.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jim Efstathiou Jr. in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at

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