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Vulnerability of River Deltas and Low-Land Coasts to Sea-Level Rise

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S. Jeffress Williams
Above: S. Jeffress Williams delivers a keynote lecture titled "The Mississippi River and Nile River Delta Plains: Effects of Sea-Level Rise, Storms, and Subsidence Under Changing Global Climate." [larger version]

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has more than 30 years of experience in conducting a wide variety of scientific studies to increase our understanding of the geologic history and evolution of the Mississippi River Delta of Louisiana. These studies have included mapping the geologic characteristics and framework of barrier islands, wetlands, and offshore continental-shelf regions; repeat mapping of coastal change by lidar (light detection and ranging); and process modeling of the effects of storms on coasts and delta-plain wetlands.

River deltas are particularly sensitive to the effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise; and urban areas, such as Cairo and New Orleans, are highly vulnerable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in its 2007 fourth assessment that nearly 300 million people live in a sample of 40 deltas worldwide, including all the large deltas. As the report states, "Deltas, one of the largest sedimentary deposits in the world, are widely recognized as highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly sea-level rise and changes in runoff, as well as being subject to stresses imposed by human modification of catchment and delta-plain land use." Similar conclusions about the vulnerability of the world's river deltas were reported in 2009 in a paper by James Syvitski and others in Nature Geoscience (v. 2, p. 681-686; http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/NGEO629). In particular, the authors found that the Mississippi and Nile River deltas are at "great risk" to sea-level rise.

To address some of these issues and to start the process of planning for sea-level rise, the USGS assisted in organizing the First International Conference on Coastal Zone Management of River Deltas and Low Land Coastlines, held March 6-10, 2010, in Alexandria, Egypt.

The conference was organized by members of Egypt's Coastal Research Institute of the National Water Research Center under the umbrella of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, along with the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, as well as many international experts, including U.S. scientists Orville Magoon (President of the Coastal Zone Foundation; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, retired) and S. Jeffress Williams (USGS Scientist Emeritus). Professor Nabil Ismail acted as an International Coordinator for the?conference, which was cosponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the USGS, the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Attendees of the First International Conference on Coastal Zone Management of River Deltas and Low Land Coastlines, with close-up view of conference banner.
Above: Attendees of the First International Conference on Coastal Zone Management of River Deltas and Low Land Coastlines, with close-up view of conference banner. [larger version]

The main objective of this conference was to bring together engineers, scientists, and government agencies and officials from around the world to exchange views and discuss recent developments in coastal-zone management. It was also intended to generate propositions for sustainable solutions to help Egypt alleviate adverse impacts of climate change and adapt to climate-change effects within the framework of integrated coastal-zone management.

During the 4-day conference, three keynote lectures were delivered by international experts: Ronald Waterman, Ismail Mobarak, and S. Jeffress Williams. Williams' talk, titled, "The Mississippi River and Nile River Delta Plains: Effects of Sea-Level Rise, Storms, and Subsidence Under Changing Global Climate," focused on the Mississippi River Delta and the results of research by Williams and other USGS scientists. A total of 47 technical papers were presented in 12 sessions covering 12 themes related to the management of river deltas and low-land coastal zones. Approximately 275 persons working in coastal science, engineering, and management came from 15 countries on four continents to attend the conference. All of the keynote lectures and technical papers will be available in a conference proceedings posted on the Web site at http://www.nwrc-egypt.info/.

During discussions in the conference sessions, attendees exchanged a broad range of ideas and reached several conclusions and recommendations for sustainable coastal-zone management.

Scientific and technical conclusions and recommendations include:

  1. Global sea-level rise is occurring as a result of global climate change and land subsidence; however, the degree of its threat can vary spatially and temporally.
  2. The Nile Delta coast is naturally protected in many places along the Mediterranean; nevertheless, coastal conditions can change over time and therefore require a comprehensive monitoring program and maintenance.
  3. Fragmented local coastal protection is neither technically efficient nor environmentally sustainable; therefore, regional solutions in the framework of integrated coastal-zone management must be adopted.
  4. Hydrodynamic simulation or physical modeling should be used to ensure that proposed coastal protections are sustainable.
  5. Building with nature is a concept worth considering because it works for both nature and humans; hence, soft-engineering methods—for example, those that incorporate habitat for fish and wildlife—are highly encouraged.

Management recommendations include:

  1. Enhance cooperation and teamwork among concerned agencies and stakeholders, at national and international levels.
  2. Develop and implement programs of awareness for governmental officials, scientists, and the public to spread knowledge about coastal and climate risk. Such knowledge is necessary for successful integrated coastal-zone management, planning implementation, and water-resources management and conservation.
  3. Develop a comprehensive scientific and technical database of coastal and climate data in cooperation with all concerned parties. Flexible information sharing and accessibility to these data will help the cooperating parties achieve sustainable development.
  4. Ensure effective capacity building (steps to improve organizational structures and strengthen individual skills) and human-resources development, from local to national and international levels.

Legislative recommendations include:

  1. Adapt required adjustments in legislation concerned with coastal-zone management processes.
  2. Enforce existing laws and coordinate among different local authorities to successfully implement national integrated coastal-zone management.

By the end of the 4 days, the conference organizers concluded that the themes and content of the First International Conference on Coastal Zone Management of River Deltas and Low Land Coastlines are of paramount political, social, and environmental importance; therefore, they recommended that such a conference be held every 3 years. Plans are being made to convene the next conference in 2013 at a venue to be determined. For the 2013 conference, the organizers will solicit even wider contributions and stronger support from different levels of government and institutions, both national and international.

Related Web Sites
First International Conference on Coastal Zone Management of River Deltas and Low Land Coastlines
Sinking Deltas Due to Human Activities

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Fieldwork cover story:
USGS Responds to Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

ResearchExtreme Storms Leave Coasts Vulnerable

Fish and Wildlife Face Risks as Climate Changes

Natural Gas Potential Assessed in Eastern Mediterranean

Outreach Open House in Florida

Meetings Vulnerability of Coasts to Sea-Level Rise

Awards Best Poster Award from Pacific Section AAPG

Publications May / June 2010 Publications

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