Shorebird Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise

by Nick Holomuzki

It’s August and beach season is in full swing, but people looking to escape the heat aren’t the only ones at the shore.  Each year, the piping plover migrates from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic to nest and raise their young.

The piping plover is a small, sand-colored shorebird that resembles a sand piper. They are native to the Atlantic coast, the Great Lakes shorelines and to inland lakes in the Great Plains.  In 1985, they were listed as a federally threatened species due to habitat loss as a result of a boom in shoreline development following World War II.

Piping Plover on a beach

Piping Plover on a beach. Photo credit: U.S. FWS

While there has been a large recovery effort in place since the 80’s, another threat is emerging – sea level rise.  The Barrier Islands, which lie off the coast of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, provide ideal habitat for these birds.  Low-lying, wide-open, sandy beaches make these islands so accommodating to plovers; however, these features also make them more vulnerable to sea level rise.

Piping plovers are projected to lose more than 29 percent of non-breeding range and up to 62 percent of its summer range by 2080, according to Audubon Society’s climate model.

EPA is active in addressing the challenges of climate change and sea level rise in a number of ways.  By providing technical assistance, analytical tools and outreach support, EPA has helped state and local coastal resource managers in preparing for a changing climate.  EPA also contributes scientific research to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and shares critical information with a wide array of international stakeholders.

Last August, President Obama and EPA announced the Clean Power Plan – a historic step in reducing carbon pollution from power plants, and last December in Paris, the U.S. committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2025.

Actions to combat sea level rise will benefit the piping plovers.  While we’re enjoying the beach, we can take simple steps to help them as well by keeping our dogs on leashes, cleaning up any food scraps or trash and respecting any areas fenced-off for the protection of wildlife so that these peppy birds have their space to skitter along the shoreline.


About the Author:  Nick Holomuzki is a Life Scientist in the Water Protection Division for the EPA’s mid-Atlantic region.  Before joining the EPA, Nick worked for the National Park Service on threatened and endangered species conservation.