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Coastal Areas

Adaptation Examples: Coastal Areas


Adaptation Examples in Coasts

Key Points
  • EPA's Climate Ready Estuaries program works with coastal managers to assess impacts of climate change, plan responses, engage stakeholders, and share lessons learned.
  • To prepare for sea level rise and increased storm surges, California, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia are shifting development inland and planting coastal vegetation to serve as natural buffers.
  • StormSmart Coasts provides a platform for state and local decision makers to share coastal adaptation resources.

Climate change will likely have significant impacts on coastal communities and marine ecosystems. Accelerated erosion, sea level rise, salt water intrusion (where water supplies become more saline), stronger storms, and warmer ocean temperatures are likely to disturb sensitive marine ecosystems and damage private property and public infrastructure throughout the U.S. coastal zone. To learn more about how climate change can impact coasts, visit the impacts section of the Coastal Impacts & Adaptation page.

Many coastal states and communities are taking actions to prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Coastal adaptation measures [1] include a wide variety of activities that include:

  • Restoring natural storm surge buffers and incorporating climate change into coastal habitat restoration plans
  • Building or repairing dikes, seawalls, and other structures that protect cities from erosion and storms
  • Modifying building codes to enable structures to withstand higher water levels
  • Expanding setbacks (the distance between a structure and the shoreline) and instituting other land-use arrangements, including rolling easements (PDF), to enable wetlands and beaches to migrate inland
  • Upgrading and redesigning infrastructure such as bridges, roads, culverts and stormwater systems
  • Evaluating drinking water supplies with respect to climate change
  • Mapping coastal hazards and developing emergency response plans with regard to sea level rise

The following case studies, examples, and related links illustrate what is being done in coastal communities to protect people and property. To find more information about activities in specific areas, visit the regional adaptation pages - links are provided after the case studies. Please note that examples on this website are not intended to be comprehensive.

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EPA’s Climate Ready Estuaries program protects key resources

EPA works with the National Estuary Programs and coastal managers under the Climate Ready Estuaries (CRE) program to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Estuaries, the transition zones where rivers meet the ocean, are particularly sensitive to climate change. CRE partners have successfully completed (PDF) vulnerability assessments, engaged stakeholders, identified climate change indicators, and initiated adaptation planning efforts. Specific CRE projects are described on the CRE website, with several of them highlighted here:

  • In May 2010, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary published an assessment (PDF) Exit EPA Disclaimer of vulnerabilities and adaptation options for tidal wetlands, drinking water supplies, and bivalve shellfish in the region. For all of these resources, the protection and/or restoration of buffers and the management of water flows were considered important for successful adaptation.
  • The Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program (CHNEP) developed a vulnerability assessment Exit EPA Disclaimer for its seven-county southwest Florida study area, and based on this information, has developed an adaptation plan Exit EPA Disclaimer with the City of Punta Gorda.
  • The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program Exit EPA Disclaimer has developed a mapping visualization tool to help educate stakeholders and the public about sea level rise risks.
  • In March 2010, the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership in New Hampshire completed a study (PDF) Exit EPA Disclaimer assessing the capacity of existing road culverts (structures commonly placed under roads to allow water to flow) during climate-induced flood events in the Oyster River watershed. Dam and culvert capacity was evaluated under several climate change and population growth scenarios to help decision-makers set priorities for design changes in new and rebuilt facilities.
  • In March 2012, vulnerability assessments for salt marshes and mudflats of the San Francisco Estuary Partnership and the Massachusetts Bays Program were published, based on the results of a novel methodology using expert elicitation. The judgments of local experts on the sensitivities of ecosystem processes to future climate conditions were used to identify "top pathways" for management adaptations.

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State Coastal Programs Prepare for Sea Level Rise

Photograph of wetlands near the shore.

"Living shorelines" use vegetation and low rocks to protect the shoreline. Source: NOAA Ocean & Coastal Resource Management (2007)

Some states with Coastal Zone Management Programs are taking steps (PDF) Exit EPA Disclaimer to protect their coastal resources, minimize erosion, and lower risks of damage from strong storms and sea level rise. Although several of these states may not be considering future climate changes or sea level rise explicitly, many of their actions are likely to bolster resilience to expected impacts. Three sets of examples are listed below.

  • California's Coastal Program requires builders applying for new shorefront development permits to consider hazards associated with increases in sea level in their project plans. See the Southwest Impacts & Adaptation page for more information about how California is preparing for sea level rise and erosion on the coast.
  • In 2009, North Carolina began calculating required setbacks (the distance between a structure and the shoreline) based on the size of the structure and local erosion rate. Moving structures further from the current shoreline will likely reduce damage from strong storms, as well as potential damage from sea level rise. For more information about strategies for reducing risk of damage from storms and sea level rise in North Carolina and other Southeastern states, visit the Southeast Impacts & Adaptation page.
  • Maryland Exit EPA Disclaimer and Virginia's (PDF) Exit EPA Disclaimer Coastal Programs have developed a "Living Shorelines" initiative. The initiative promotes alternatives to armoring shorelines with hard structures such as bulkheads and stone revetments, which eliminate wetlands and beaches. Alternatives include establishing oyster reefs, planting vegetation, such as marsh and dune grass, or using a combination of vegetation and strategically placed low-profile barriers such as rocks or wood.

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StormSmart Coasts Promotes Information and Resources Sharing

StormSmart Coasts Alliance Exit EPA Disclaimer was formed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, the Northeast Regional Ocean Council, and EPA. The network provides an online forum for coastal communities to find and share information about protecting coastal communities from extreme weather, sea level rise, and other climate-related hazards. Through the website, participating states have access to instructions on how to map hazards, create an emergency response plan, and recover from floods. Communities involved in the network can post webinars, studies, and funding opportunities related to coastal impacts for use by other communities in the region.

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1. NRC (2010). Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change Exit EPA Disclaimer . National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.

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