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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
Loyola University of Chicago
Pacific Northwest Research Station, US Forest Service
University of Notre Dame


What researchers learned

In summer 2017, researchers on this project conducted an additional year of surveys of waterbirds using the suite of 16 ponds on the Copper River Delta that were monitored in 2016. We also collected invertebrate samples in different vegetation communities (native and Elodea) and water samples for analysis of ecosystem function and productivity. The graduate student on this project has analyzed factors affecting the density and distribution of waterbird species and foraging guilds in the study ponds. She found that in general, pond temperature, the surrounding (terrestrial) vegetation community, and the degree of physical complexity of the pond's shoreline are important predictors of the waterbird community in each pond. The relative importance of these factors and others varied by foraging guild. Of particular interest is the fact that using two years of data, the presence of Elodea appears to have a negative effect on waterbird densities, particularly for shorebirds and dabbling ducks. These results are preliminary and work is ongoing to include invertebrate communities and water chemistry data in our analysis.

Research impacts

Alaska Sea Grant–funded research links presence of Elodea in ponds with lower waterbird population density

Recap: Alaska Sea Grant–funded researchers studied sixteen pond communities in the Copper River Delta and found that where the invasive plant Elodea is found, fewer waterbirds are present.

Relevance: Elodea is an invasive water plant in Alaska that spreads rapidly and can have significant effects on the ecosystem. At 700,000 acres, the Copper River Delta is the largest contiguous wetland on the Pacific coast of North America and provides critical habitat for over 250 species of birds. The estimated 4 to 7 million shorebirds that pass through the region each spring are an ecotourism draw, which is important to the local economy. Understanding the impacts of the invasive plant Elodea on Copper River Delta pond communities will allow for better management of human activities.

Response: Alaska Sea Grant–funded researchers monitored sixteen pond communities in the Copper River Delta and conducted two years of waterbird surveys. Each pond was surveyed at least four times per field season and the presence or absence of Elodea was recorded. Nests and birds within 10 meters of a pond were recorded as present. The researchers conducted scan sampling of waterbird behavior at the ponds in relation to the type of aquatic vegetation present.

Results: Waterbird community size, bird behavior and pond vegetation sampling data suggest fewer waterbirds are present at ponds with the invasive aquatic plant Elodea. Investigators are sharing these results with state and federal management agencies to inform future invasive species management in Alaska.