A new, National Science Foundation-funded study of Virginia's barrier islands off the coast of the Eastern Shore provides a fundamental understanding of how barrier islands will change in the near future amid a warming climate, sea level rise and storm events such as hurricanes and nor'easters. The study offers important insights into the ecological and geomorphic processes occurring on Virginia's chain of 23 uninhabited islands that stretch from Assateague at the Maryland border to Fisherman Island near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel as well as other barrier islands along the East Coast. These islands help protect the mainland from storms that -- thanks to climate change -- are increasing in frequency and intensity. Barrier islands have been shown to be naturally resilient in response to relative sea level rise by migrating landward via an "overwash" process that deposits sediment onto the islands' backbarrier marsh, thereby maintaining elevation above sea level. The study, which explored the role of interior island vegetation in this process, found that sediment movement from upland to marsh is being stymied by an expansion of woody vegetation brought about by a warming winter climate. In other words, the impact of sea level rise on barrier islands in Virginia and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast is being accelerated by climate change.
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