Domino Effect: The Myriad Impacts of Warming on an East Coast Estuary

Red knots with horseshoe crabs. The birds feed on the crabs’ eggs. GREOGY BREESE, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

Delaware Bay provides a case study in how warming oceans, more severe storms, and sea-level rise are impacting estuaries around the world. The effects — from loss of wetlands to steep declines in shorebird populations — cascade throughout the ecosystem.

The 400,000 acres of wetlands in Delaware Bay sustain hundreds of aquatic and terrestrial species, including the second-largest population of shorebirds in North America. Yet, as sea level increases — now rising at about 1.2-inches per decade and expected to dramatically accelerate this century — this habitat is vanishing.

“The Delaware estuary is like the Mississippi mouth — naturally muddy and wetland rich,” says Danielle Kreeger, science director for the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. “Most of your signature fauna depend on the marshes for breeding, nursery, and feeding. We’re losing an acre a day now, but we’re probably going to see a colossal blowout in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Delaware Bay, one of the largest and richest estuaries in the United States, is a case study in how warming oceans, associated storms and sea-level rise are eroding wetlands, damaging water quality, and unraveling terrestrial and near-shore aquatic ecosystems in many parts of the world. In Delaware Bay, the victims include such interdependent organisms as trees, marsh grasses, fish that use the wetlands for spawning and nursery habitat, oysters, mussels, crustaceans, shorebirds, marsh birds, and waterfowl.

Read more at Yale Environment 360