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Incorporating Environmental Change in Planning for Healthy Coastal Ecosystems and Economies


Audrey Taylor Audrey TaylorDepartment of Geography & Environmental Studies
University of Alaska Anchorage
Gary Lamberti Gary LambertiDepartment of Biological Sciences
University of Notre Dame
Martin Berg Martin BergDepartment of Biology
Loyola University of Chicago



Coastal wetlands are highly productive systems that provide a suite of critical ecosystem services to the surrounding landscape and to humans living in coastal communities. However, the structural and functional integrity of many coastal wetlands is currently threatened by climate change, which is predicted to be particularly intense at northern latitudes including Alaska. This project will assess the effects on coastal ecosystem structure of two major consequences of predicted climate change: (1) increased temperature of fresh and brackish water ponds, and (2) increased extent and rate of spread of invasive aquatic plants, in particular Elodea. We will use the Copper River Delta (CRD) as a model system within which to understand how the effects of these environmental changes may cascade through the trophic structure of a coastal system to ultimately influence waterbird distributions and breeding parameters. The CRD is an ideal location in which to conduct this study because it is relatively pristine yet contains an impressive east-west temperature gradient and an ongoing Elodea invasion. Numerous waterbird species using the CRD as staging and breeding habitat (Lesser Yellowlegs, Whimbrel, Hudsonian Godwit, Short-billed Dowitcher, Aleutian Tern, Arctic Tern, Dusky Canada Goose, and the non-waterbird Rusty Blackbird) are listed on the USFWS 2008 “Birds of Conservation Concern” list. These birds, and other wildlife, are a major attraction for nature-based tourism in the CRD, which contributes substantially to the local economy. Thus, understanding how climate change impacts to CRD coastal ecosystems may influence these species distributions and life cycles is a crucial component of understanding how to manage and enhance recreational tourism opportunities in coastal communities such as Cordova, Alaska. We will apply the results of our research to improving Alaska's capacity for science-based climate change adaptation strategies for the coastal ecosystems on which human and non-human species depend.


The issue

The research addresses an ongoing issue faced by small coastal communities in Alaska that are dependent on local resources for some or most of their economies. The climate of Alaska is changing, and we have little information to predict how these changes may cascade through ecosystems to affect aspects of the natural environment, such as waterbirds, that are drivers of local economic activity.

Why is this an Alaska Sea Grant project?

Our research directly addresses Strategic Plan Goals 1 (Healthy Marine, Coastal, and Watershed Ecosystems in Alaska), 5 (Community Residents with Skills and Knowledge to Adapt to Coastal Hazards and Environmental Change), and 6 (An Environmentally Literate Public of Alaska Residents and Visitors).

Research collaborators

Chugach National Forest, US Forest Service
University of Notre Dame
Loyola University of Chicago


What researchers learned

In summer 2016, researchers on this project conducted surveys of waterbirds breeding and foraging on 16 ponds on the Copper River Delta. Simultaneous invertebrate and water chemistry samples were also taken at each pond. Preliminary results indicate a significant relationship between nesting chronology of waterbirds and pond temperature, with more late nesting birds using colder ponds than was expected. There was no statistically significant difference in waterbird abundance or density in ponds with or without Elodea. Fieldwork will continue in 2017 to further refine variables influencing waterbird distributions on the Copper River Delta ponds.