Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 5-2018


The Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) has identified increased understanding of the possible effects of climate change on the socio-economic assets and systems of the region as a priority need. This is based both on recent experience studying climate change and concern for the economic values that have been placed at risk. Changes in ocean temperatures and chemistry are already affecting fisheries, while the critical marine transportation facilities of the region must now address concerns about sea level rise in addition to shifting global transportation markets. New research is showing that coastal and ocean ecosystems are already changing along with the services they provide to people, and millions of people in hundreds of thousands of homes are threatened by increases in the areas subject to flooding from oceans and estuaries as well as the depth and frequency of flooding. The region examined here stretches across 63 counties and independent cities from Montauk Point to Virginia Beach and encompasses the Chesapeake Bay and the lower Delaware River. The 2016 population of these counties is more than 28.6 million with a shore-adjacent population (defined by Census tracts) of more than 14.6 million. The region is of great size and significant socio-economic diversity, ranging in population size from 2.6 million in Brooklyn (Kings County), New York, to less than 9,000 in Matthews County, Virginia. The region includes Manhattan Island (New York County), the heavily developed Jersey Shore, but also the wild dunes of Assateague and Chincoteague islands and the rural counties of the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.1 Vulnerability is the focus of this study, which seeks to integrate the current state of knowledge about the Mid-Atlantic region in order to identify the key pressure points on the socio-economic assets and activities of the region and to estimate the degree of vulnerability both in absolute terms and relative terms across the region. The results of this study should contribute to the already vigorous processes throughout the region that states and local communities are using to plan adaptation strategies. Vulnerability is a state of potential; effects may or may not actually occur. Identifying a vulnerable condition is not a forecast of a specific outcome but is an indicator of possible effects based on the assumptions used to generate the measurement of vulnerability. The possible extent of climate change and its impacts on the Mid-Atlantic region have been extensively studied over the past decade. The climate-related changes that are likely to occur have been identified with increasing levels of confidence, including sea level rise as well as changes in marine and coastal ecosystems. However, the breadth and depth of available information varies across the region. To assess socio-economic vulnerabilities for transportation, fisheries, and ecosystems, a range of studies of climate change in the region and relevant studies drawn from elsewhere are summarized. For sea level rise, a projection common to the whole Mid-Atlantic region is used: the NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer provides consistent spatial projections of the areal extent (but not depth) of flooding that can be used to compare possible rates of sea level rise with the distribution of socio-economic assets across the region. For this analysis, sea level rises of 3 feet and 6 feet (by 2100) are used. These two scenarios are roughly consistent with the planning assumptions used in the Mid-Atlantic region and were approved by project’s advisory committee. These projections allow consistent analysis across the region, but do not reflect the most recent research which incorporates depth of possible flooding effects and are based on altering the underlying perspective on sea level rise from “this could happen by [year]” to “this has X % probability of happening within Y time period” which indicates that the 3 and 6 foot levels could occur sooner than the 2100 horizon.

For the analysis, the effects of sea level rise are measured as the proportion of area flooded (temporarily covered by water) or inundated (permanently covered by water) in shoreline areas of the region as projected by the NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer. The area examined depends on the socio-economic data’s geographic level. These range from the county at the broadest scale to the Census tract at the finest scale. Socio-economic characteristics examined included:

  • Population
  • Housing Stock
  • Total Employment
  • Social Vulnerability
  • The Summer Economy
  • Fishing Communities
  • Energy and Water Infrastructure
  • Road and Rail Infrastructure

The data on these indicators was drawn from a variety of sources, some of which were actual measures of the indicator and others were composite indexes compiled by other researchers.


The Center for the Blue Economy, in collaboration with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has published a first-of-its-kind report for The Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) examining Mid-Atlantic vulnerabilities of several critical economic sectors to climate change. The report quantifies the potential impacts of threats like sea level rise, rising ocean temperatures and changes in the ocean’s chemistry to communities and businesses in 63 counties and independent cities along the coast from New York to Virginia.