Letter | Published:

Coastal habitats shield people and property from sea-level rise and storms

Nature Climate Change volume 3, pages 913918 (2013) | Download Citation

This article has been updated


Extreme weather, sea-level rise and degraded coastal ecosystems are placing people and property at greater risk of damage from coastal hazards1,2,3,4,5. The likelihood and magnitude of losses may be reduced by intact reefs and coastal vegetation1, especially when those habitats fringe vulnerable communities and infrastructure. Using five sea-level-rise scenarios, we calculate a hazard index for every 1 km2 of the United States coastline. We use this index to identify the most vulnerable people and property as indicated by being in the upper quartile of hazard for the nation’s coastline. The number of people, poor families, elderly and total value of residential property that are most exposed to hazards can be reduced by half if existing coastal habitats remain fully intact. Coastal habitats defend the greatest number of people and total property value in Florida, New York and California. Our analyses deliver the first national map of risk reduction owing to natural habitats and indicates where conservation and restoration of reefs and vegetation have the greatest potential to protect coastal communities.

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Change history

  • 01 August 2013

    In the version of this Letter originally published online, the second sentence of the Acknowledgements section should have read "We thank Zillow and the many individuals and institutions that provided data (see Supplementary Information for full details)". This error has now been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


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We thank the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for financial support and for hosting the National Climate Assessment Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Ecosystem Services Technical Chapter working group. We thank Zillow and the many individuals and institutions that provided data (see Supplementary Information for full details). We also thank J. Burke, G. Gelfenbaum, R. Griffin, C. K. Kim, J. Lawler, M. Plummer, P. Ruggiero, J. Samhouri, H. Tallis, J. Toft and G. Ziv for discussions during this research. Links for downloading the coastal hazard index and data, and visualizing results are available at www.naturalcapitalproject.org.

Author information


  1. The Natural Capital Project, Stanford University, 8907 25th Ave NE Seattle, Washington 98115, USA

    • Katie K. Arkema
  2. The Natural Capital Project, Stanford University, 371 Serra Mall, Stanford, California 94305-5020, USA

    • Greg Guannel
    • , Spencer A. Wood
    • , Anne Guerry
    • , Mary Ruckelshaus
    • , Martin Lacayo
    •  & Jessica M. Silver
  3. The Natural Capital Project, Stanford University, c/o Conservation Science Program World Wildlife Fund—US, 1250 24th Street NW, Washington DC 20037-1193, USA

    • Gregory Verutes
  4. The Nature Conservancy, 4722 Latona Ave NE, Seattle, Washington 98105, USA

    • Peter Kareiva


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P.K., M.R., K.K.A., G.G., A.G., S.A.W. and G.V. conceived the research. G.G. and G.V. developed the coastal hazard index. K.A., G.V. and S.W. carried out analyses. K.K.A., G.G., G.V. and S.A.W. collected the data. M.L. and J.M.S. helped with data collection and analyses. K.K.A. wrote the paper with contributions from A.G., G.G, P.K., M.R., J.M.S., G.V. and S.A.W.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Katie K. Arkema.

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