Assessing Potential Impacts of Sea Level Rise in Florida

Florida’s unique landscape is one of the most rapidly changing and climate-vulnerable within the United States. The state is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise due to low elevation, geographic location and landscape configuration. Sea level rise (SLR) will have a range of effects on the coastal areas of Florida. Multiple variables will influence the type of changes and impacts, including location, coastline complexity, elevation, habitat type, and the presence of barriers to inland migration. When considering the impact of SLR, there will likely be a shift in the natural community structure before being completely lost. With loss of habitat, the impact to species will vary but, in some cases, will be extreme. 

Spatial analyses were designed to evaluate the potential loss of habitat for 66 species based on the amount of their current potential habitat that would likely be inundated under a 1m and 3m rise in sea level. Loss of species' habitats due to sea level rise was assessed through Geographic Information Systems analyses. Simple (bathtub) inundation spatial data were used in the analyses. Modeled habitat for each species was overlaid with the 1m and 3m SLR data. The amount of habitat identified within the inundation zones was calculated. Maps for each species and each level of SLR were created. 

Additionally, analyses using the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) were designed to model potential shifts in coastal wetlands based on various input parameters. Data from these analyses were used to evaluate the exposure of the species and their habitats to various levels of sea level rise and vegetation shifts.

SLAMM was used to identify shifts in coastal wetlands conversion. SLAMM is a mathematical model that simulates the dominant processes involved in wetlands conversions and shoreline modifications under different scenarios of sea level rise. Distributions of wetlands are predicted under conditions of accelerated sea level rise, with results summarized in numerical and map-based outputs. The model addressed five primary processes, inundation, erosion, saturation, overwash and accretion. The SLAMM is based on a generalized set (26 categories) of land cover types from the National Wetlands Inventory data.

Results from the SLR inundation analyses and the SLAMM assessments were used to visualize impacts from various sea level rise scenarios and compare impacts from multiple scenarios and time frames. The relative degree of exposure to SLR and community loss/shifts was evaluated, determining which areas would likely be impacted first as well as which areas would likely experience the greatest impact (% loss of species' habitats). Conversely, areas that are expected to be minimally impacted were identified as refugia. This information will allow managers to prioritize actions in ways that most effectively address the potential impacts to the species and their habitats, as well as develop adaptation strategies to minimize the impacts. 

  • Map showing Sea Levels Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) of Bahia Honda Key

    Sea Levels Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) of Bahia Honda Key, used to identify shifts in coastal wetlands conversion.  

  • Map showing Sea level rise impacts for a variety of Florida habitats

    Sea level rise impacts for a variety of Florida habitats, showing impacts from a 1-meter versus 3-meter sea level rise.

  • Map showing Sea level rise impacts for the Everglade snail kite

    Sea level rise impacts are also applied to wildlife, as illustrated here by the species page for the Everglade snail kite.

  • map showing sea level rise impacts for the entire state of Florida

    Sea level rise impacts for the entire state of Florida, illustrating just how vulnerable Florida is to rising seas.

The assessment of potential impacts to species and their habitats from sea level rise inundation and shifts in wetlands vegetation composition were conducted in support of multiple other projects. Project support began in 2012 with the "Florida Keys Marine Adaptation Planning" project, providing SLAMM outputs for the Florida Keys. Each year additional sites have been added, with the majority of the Gulf Coast now completed. Assessment of the potential shifts in coastal wetlands has been provided to several other projects including: "A Scenario-based Approach for Implementing Climate Adaptation on Public Conservation Lands," "Florida Keys Terrestrial Adaptation Project” and "Incorporating Climate Change Considerations into Conservation Planning and Actions for Threatened and Endangered Species in the Florida Keys." Updated versions of the impacts to species habitats and to land cover communities due to inundation by rising sea levels were evaluated in support of the development of the Climate Adaptation Explorer.

The challenges to Florida’s future ecosystems and wildlife are significant. While the analyses and map products were completed for specific projects, the results are applicable to anyone interested in learning about the potential impacts from SLR on species and their habitats and addressing sea level rise impacts through planning, policy and implementation of adaptation strategies. Through new technologies and innovative new conservation approaches like these, managers and conservationists can begin to chart new paths for Florida fish, wildlife and ecosystems now and in the future.