Effect of sea-level rise on piping plover (Charadrius melodus) breeding habitat
Climate change is raising sea levels, threatening many low-lying coastal areas and associated wildlife. We assessed the threat of sea-level rise (SLR) to the breeding habitat of the federally threatened piping plover on the barrier islands of Suffolk County, New York. We determined the extent of habitat change over the next 100 years under several SLR estimates, as well as the interactive effects of coastal development and storm surge. We found that if plover habitat cannot migrate, SLR is likely to reduce breeding areas. However, if habitat is able to migrate upslope and inland, breeding areas could actually increase with SLR. Unfortunately, this potential habitat gain is stymied by human development, which we found to reduce migrating habitat by 5–12%, depending on SLR estimates. We also found that the spatial configuration of developed areas mattered more than intensity of development in blocking the migration of potential habitat area. Our results raise concern over the likelihood of increased conflict between plover habitat protection and human recreation as habitat is likely to become a larger proportion of the barrier islands in the future. Finally, our results highlight risk from the synergism between SLR and coastal storms, as we estimate that a large hurricane could flood up to 95% of plover habitat. To assure the future of plover habitat on these barrier islands, management needs to promote natural overwash and habitat migration, while minimizing development adjacent to future breeding habitat.