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wetlandsA new analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that 64,975 square miles of U.S. coastal regions have experienced changes in land cover, including major declines in wetlands and forests.

Between 1996 and 2011, a wide variety of factors have affected coastal land cover in the United States, including land subsidence, erosion, storm surges, sea level rise and man-made development. Development has eliminated 642 square miles of wetlands, the equivalent of 61 foot fields per day. With all environmental and man-made factors taken into account, NOAA calculates that 1,536 square miles of wetlands have disappeared.

Forests have also taken a significant hit, with 6.1 percent of forests reduced nationwide and over 27,000 square miles of forests affected. Despite reforestation efforts, the U.S. still experienced a net loss of 16,483 square miles of forest cover.

As the nation’s population continues to expand, being able to compare coastlines on a year-by-year basis is essential to both scientists and policymakers. According to Margaret Davidson, a National Ocean Service senior advisor for coastal inundation and resilience science services, NOAA’s land cover analysis will give both a clearer image of how climate change is affecting the country’s natural resources.

“The ability to mitigate the growing evidence of climate change along our coasts with rising sea levels already impacting coastlines in ways not imaged just a few years ago makes the data available through the Land Cover Atlas program critically important to coastal resilience planning,” she says.

“Seeing changes over five, ten, or even fifteen years allows Land Cover Atlas users to focus on local hazard vulnerabilities and improve their resilience plans,” says Jeffrey L. Payne, Ph.D., acting director for NOAA’s Coastal Services Center. “For instance, the atlas has helped its users assess sea level rise hazards in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, high-risk areas for stormwater runoff in southern California, and the best habitat restoration sites in two watersheds of the Great Lakes.”

Among NOAA’s other land cover findings: A net loss of 3,200 square miles of forest along the West Coast; over 1,170 square miles of development added to the Northeast; and 510 square miles of wetlands scrubbed from the Southeast.

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