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Aerial pictures tell a thousand words about potential impacts from sea level rise

New report inventories the location, status, and condition of potential piping plover breeding grounds before Hurricane Sandy, providing a habitat baseline that will help resource managers anticipate future change.
Aerial pictures tell a thousand words about potential impacts from sea level rise

Aerial view of beachfront development in Atlantic City, N.J.

In the first week of November 2012, updated coastal imagery covering central New Jersey to the North Shore of Long Island was added to Google Earth. For coastal geologist Tracy Rice, it was good timing. Taken within days of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on October 29th, the detailed aerial photographs provided a snapshot of a historic storm that holds valuable information about the future of the coast.  

“I can see exactly what the storm did before any active response efforts had started,” explained Rice, a contractor with Terwilliger Consulting Inc.  

More than just see what the storm did, she can quantify its impact. Specifically, its impact to breeding habitat for piping plover along the U.S. Atlantic Coast breeding range, spanning from North Carolina to Maine.

That’s the objective of the three-phase study Rice is undertaking with support from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative and the Department of the Interior Hurricane Sandy Resilience Project funding.

Using imagery from Google Earth, Google Maps, state agencies, municipalities, and private organizations, Rice is inventorying the location, status, and condition of potential plover breeding grounds before the storm (phase one), immediately after the storm (phase two), and three years after post-storm recovery efforts (phase three).  

In addition to a written report, the time-lapse portrait of plover habitat can help provide insights on impacts of storms and rising sea levels, and guide future conservation efforts. Because piping plover are considered a “representative” species for those that use dynamic sandy beach and inlet habitats, protecting and managing beaches for plovers will also provide benefits for a suite of others, including breeding shorebirds such as American oystercatchers, migrating shorebirds such as sanderlings and rare plants such as seabeach amaranth.  

Combined with a previous study in which Rice inventoried the plover’s coastal migration and wintering habitat along beaches (see the full report) and tidal inlets (see the full report) from North Carolina to Texas, the project will provide a comprehensive picture of habitat to inform strategic management for the federally listed threatened shorebird.  

Rice’s description of phase one of the project - creating a solid habitat baseline for piping plover - was akin to assembling a puzzle with scattered pieces. While Google Earth’s historical imagery helped to fill in missing sections, Rice said she began the process by reviewing the literature for any and all pre-existing data, including from maps dating to the 17th century.

“Because the Northeast has been developed for so long, there are maps of the area going back as far as the early 1700s and even 1600s, and there’s a lot in the literature from people who have translated the boundaries of historical maps onto contemporary maps,” explained Rice.

Though much has changed in 400 years, those early records contain valuable information for Rice, and ultimately for practitioners who will see the final product. “I can drop a pin in Google Earth to mark where there used to be an inlet, and say that it was open from this date to this date, and that it was known by this name,” she said, explaining, “It’s important to know if an area tended to have an inlet, because we know to anticipate or plan for changes there.”

Of course, Rice is inventorying contemporary features related to both beaches and inlets as well.

Any kind of beach armoring structure - seawalls, revetments, giant sandbags - can help to quantify the degree to which the coastline has been modified and developed.

Similarly for inlets, “We are looking at how many have been modified by structures, dredged, mined for fill, opened artificially, closed artificially, or relocated,” Rice said.

She has also digitized the boundaries of restoration projects, and any areas under public or NGO ownership. “That gives us a feel for where potential conservation lands are, where there are gaps, and where to target future efforts,” Rice said. Although those areas might not be completely free of development because of infrastructure like parking lots and roads, they serve as proxy for the potential to sustain habitat in the face of climate change.

“There’s no guarantee, but these are places where land managers might allow habitat to migrate as sea level rises,” she said.

Rice said she hopes using Google Earth - a free platform with built in tools for analysis - will facilitate broad application of the inventory. “This way, not only Fish and Wildlife Service biologists working on Endangered Species Act consultations, but partners looking for restoration projects, can access a map, zoom into a location, get any information that has been inventoried, and read the report to put things in context.”

Using Google Earth can also help ensure ongoing review of the data. For example, if someone with local knowledge sees that Rice has labeled a beach as “undeveloped” when in reality it has been converted into a parking lot, they can flag the location.

The final report for phase one of the project is currently under review and slated for completion on June 1st, but it is already providing valuable perspective. “These reports focus my attention on a lot of habitat-related conditions that have been staring me in the face for years, and put them in the context of the bigger picture,” said Anne Hecht, an Endangered Species Biologist and Piping Plover Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “For example, I always knew that New Hampshire had a short coastline and not much beach, but not that 72 percent of it is armored.”

Rice emphasized that the utility of her work is magnified by its relationship to the others in the suite of Hurricane Sandy funded projects. From research on plover nesting habitat at a site level to the development of a smartphone app for shorebird biologists to collect data in the field, “Everything fits together to help create a really big picture of how habitat will be affected by sea level rise.”

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