Coastal Plain Forests: The Next 50 Years

Subregional report from the Southern Forest Futures Project

The Southern Coastal Plain’s 188 million acres span from Texas to Virginia.
The Southern Coastal Plain’s 188 million acres span from Texas to Virginia.

What will our Southern coastal forests look like in 50 years? With a myriad of factors involved—including climate change, population growth, economic outlooks, and more—it’s not a simple question. However, forest researchers have provided what they believe is a comprehensive answer to that question in the new general technical report Outlook for Coastal Plain Forests.

The report is the third in a series of five subregional reports on the forests of the South compiled by scientists for the Southern Forest Futures Project (Futures Project), a multi-agency effort led by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS). CompassLive has already highlighted the reports written for the Appalachian-Cumberland Highland and Piedmont subregions. The Coastal Plain report’s authors are Kier Klepzig, SRS assistant director of research; retired silviculturist Richard Shelfer, formerly with the Forest Service’s Southern Region office in Tallahassee, FL; and Zanethia Choice, natural resources specialist with the SRS Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research in Stoneville, MS.

As the name implies, the Coastal Plain subregion encompasses the South’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, its 188 million acres stretching from the Virginia coastal plain southward through the Florida peninsula, then along the Gulf coast to Texas. (A single “cut-out” from the region, along and immediately west of the Mississippi River, makes up the Mississippi Alluvial Valley subregion.) The Coastal Plain area also extends as far inland as western Kentucky.

Not surprisingly, with a region this large and varied, producing an all-encompassing outlook was a challenge. However, during public input sessions conducted in cities across the region, Futures Project investigators did find regionwide consensus on several issues deemed important to residents and stakeholders.

With input from these sessions considered, the Coastal Plain subregional report details a range of scenarios expected to affect the region in the next 50 years.

  • Temperatures are likely to increase. Researchers used several scenarios to model future climate; the scenarios combined results from four global circulation models with two “emission storylines” involving higher or lower rates of economic and population growth. Each scenario indicates warming across the entire Coastal Plain by 2060. One scenario predicts average temperatures nearly 5 °F higher across parts of the region in 50 years. Results were inconclusive regarding annual precipitation changes, but warmer temperatures alone would stress the forest environment, notably in water availability.   

    Invasive cogongrass, already thriving along the central Gulf coast, could spread throughout the Coastal Plain by 2060. Photo by Chris Evans, courtesy of Bugwood.org.
    Invasive cogongrass, already thriving along the central Gulf coast, could spread throughout the Coastal Plain by 2060. Photo by Chris Evans, courtesy of Bugwood.org.

 

  • Rising oceans may damage millions of forested acres. With the world warming, models show sea-level rise ranging from around a foot to as much as 6 feet above current mean sea level—or even higher, depending on the assumptions used. A projected rise of 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) would affect some 3.7 million acres of Coastal Plain forests, with saltwater intrusion harming coastal forests and wildlife.

 

  • Urbanization will significantly reduce forested land. By 2060, urban development may reduce forest land by nearly 18 million acres in the Coastal Plain. Peninsular Florida will experience the largest urban growth in the entire South, with forests expected to dwindle there by 34 percent.

 

  • Population will rise. The report predicts a 68-percent increase in Coastal Plain population. This increase, especially near public lands and water, would put added pressure on limited recreational resources.

 

  • Fresh water will be in demand. The combination of higher temperatures, reduced forest land, and a larger population will combine to increase water stress regionwide.

 

  • Biodiversity will decrease, while invasive species spread. Rising sea levels and urbanization will contribute to the loss of some native animal and plant species. Meanwhile, expected increases in the impacts of invasive plants—particularly of notoriously aggressive cogongrass—would degrade the benefits provided by Coastal Plain forests.

 

Other report findings include the potential for increased forest harvest for biomass-based energy, shifts in habitat range for various plant and animal species (native and invasive), and longer wildfire seasons. Despite uncertainties in some findings, one thing is certain—the South’s coastlines will look very different in 50 years.

 Read the full text of the report.

For more information, email Kier Klepzig at kklepzig@fs.fed.us.

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