Uplands to Lowlands:

Coastal Processes in a Time of Global Change


The location of the 2003 ESA meeting in Savannah, Georgia, makes coastal processes a natural theme for the meeting.  Coastal ecosystems are strongly influenced by both local and global changes.  Upland uses affect critical watersheds that flow into the lowlands; thus, urban and agricultural impacts throughout river basins affect coastal ecosystems. The low-lying southern coast is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and changing precipitation patterns. This vulnerability from global climate change is further exacerbated by rapid urban development and changing rural land uses that demand more water and increase stresses on coastal ecosystems. The Savannah meeting provides an excellent opportunity to increase understanding of coastal ecosystems and explore their vulnerability to climate variability and economic growth in the uplands.


This theme captures two important issues. First, the coast and especially the low coast of the Mid-Atlantic down through Florida, is highly vulnerable to global climate change.  Sea level rise will have major consequences for coastal ecosystems, especially because our built environment along the coast has left few places for salt marshes and beaches to reach a new equilibrium location.  Furthermore, increasing demands on groundwater is causing salt water intrusion in some locations and reducing wetlands that are dependent on artesian processes. Sea level rise will further exacerbate salt water intrusion. In the Savannah region, salt water intrusion is coming from deeper aquifers but further south the intrusion is from sea water.


The second major issue is the connectivity of entire river basins to the coast.  This is not just a Southeastern U.S. issue; it offers opportunity for broader discussions about the ecological linkages across landscapes, from uplands to lowlands.  Urban/suburban growth is demanding more water withdrawal from rivers and streams. Development in the mountains is affecting headwater streams and water yields. The consequence for the lowlands and coastal areas is decreasing river flow and increasing concentration of pollution. One response to the increasing demand for water is the construction of more reservoirs. However, reservoirs are often barriers to fish migration. Furthermore, reservoirs act as sediment traps, and in coastal areas this can affect the maintenance of barrier islands by reducing their supply of sediment. In addition to all of these important issues, the coastal processes theme readily connects to a variety of other topics, such as habitat degradation, and invasive species.