Adaptation Approaches to Sea-Level Rise in Florida1

Ondine Wells, Whitney Gray, and Paul Monaghan 2

Sea-Level Rise in Florida

There is consensus among the scientific community that climate change is occurring and will have far-reaching effects on our global ecosystems and human systems. Atmospheric and ocean temperatures have risen, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have lost mass, sea levels have risen, and ocean acidification has increased. It is predicted that sea levels will continue to rise as a result of continued warming and ice-sheet melting (IPCC 2013). Florida's ecosystems and human systems are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise because more than half of the population (Crossett et al. 2004) live near the state's more than 1,200 miles of coastline (FDEP 2013). Some areas of Florida, including coastal ecosystems, transitional habitats, the Everglades, and island ecosystems such as the Florida Keys, likely will experience extreme changes as a result of sea-level rise (Geselbracht et al. 2011). Endemic, rare, threatened, and endangered species that rely upon these ecosystems are particularly at risk of decline and, at worst, extinction (Aiello-Lammens et al. 2011; Fei, Cox, and Whittle 2011). In some cases, the effects of sea-level rise are already being seen as vulnerable populations decline or migrate (Maschinski et al. 2011).

Natural and Human Adaptation

In Florida, adaptation to climate change is occurring in both natural and human systems. Natural systems can adapt to changes on their own, given proper conditions, but people can also do things to help ecosystems change and survive. These measures typically fall into one of four categories: resistance, resilience, response, or realignment. Resistance is the process of maintaining current conditions despite climate change. This might include actions like creating berms around vulnerable areas to keep sea-level rise from affecting an ecosystem. Resilience focuses on helping an ecosystem survive a disturbance and return to desired conditions. Activities that improve resilience, such as coastal ecosystem restoration, put the ecosystem into the best possible condition. Response strategies—like designing habitat corridors to promote species migration—seek to assist the transition of an ecosystem to a new, future condition. Realignment is typically used in a heavily disturbed ecosystem and concentrates on its future condition (Millar, Stephenson, and Stephens 2007).

Human adaptation focuses on making communities resilient so that they can withstand future changes. These adaptation approaches may include protection, accommodation, or managed relocation. Protection strategies typically include defensive barriers such as shoreline armoring or beach nourishment. Accommodation strategies use design measures to allow structures to stay in place when future changes occur. For example, elevating a building allows it to survive flooding. Managed relocation is moving assets at high risk to new, safer locations. This can be achieved through rolling easements or Transfers of Development Rights (Deyle, Bailey, and Matheny 2007).

Human adaptation often can conflict with the process of adaptation in natural systems. For example, shoreline hardening may prevent sea turtles from nesting further up shore as sea-level rises (Rizkala and Savage 2011), and inhibit inland migration of seagrass and mangrove habitats, which are critical fish nurseries. Consequences may include a decline in fisheries or a shoreline's increased susceptibility to hurricanes. As humans move inland due to the pressures of sea-level rise and increased storm intensity, they will begin occupying now undeveloped lands. This could result in increased habitat fragmentation, as well as competition with organisms that are also migrating inland or are already present (Noss 2011).

There are, however, human adaptation strategies that can successfully address the needs of both natural and human communities, and these fall into three categories: physical, policy, and process. Physical approaches include changes to the natural or man-made environment. Policy approaches are typically implemented through comprehensive plans and land development regulations. Process approaches are mechanisms by which both physical and policy strategies can be implemented more effectively. Not all strategies may be suitable for every location or for every species. Determining which adaptation strategies are most appropriate may require an ecosystem- or landscape-scale approach that crosses political boundaries and demands a more collaborative, coordinated effort among multiple governments, agencies, and public and private entities.

As coastal communities prepare for sea-level rise, they can use these and other strategies to integrate natural adaptation processes into their planning processes. Because natural systems rarely follow political boundaries, a more coordinated planning effort between multiple governments and agencies may be necessary. Planners may also consider using an adaptive management approach that would allow the community greater flexibility when responding to unanticipated impacts of climate change. By taking a proactive approach to adaptation rather than a reactive one, communities will be able to better protect the resources upon which they depend.

Table 1. 

Adaptation Approach

How it works

Physical Approaches

No-rebuild zones/rolling easements

Establish areas where structures will not be rebuilt following severe storm damage, or provide opportunities for inland migration of wetlands and shorelines

Shoreline setbacks

Move the developable area farther from the shoreline

Structural approaches

Design buildings that will withstand future changes in sea level or storm surges, or that allow habitats to adapt to changing conditions

Ecological resiliency

Strengthen the resiliency of existing ecological communities by reducing non-climate-related threats such as invasive species or habitat fragmentation

Habitat corridors

Connect natural areas and enable species dispersal and migration

Habitat acquisition

Acquire and preserve lands that may become future habitats for displaced species

Water-control structures (flood-control and stormwater-management systems)

Design to allow the migration of species inland as sea levels rise

Living shorelines

Support species diversity as well as protection from storm surges

Seed banks

Collect and store seeds from species at risk of extinction or extreme loss

Oyster reef restoration

Restore oyster reefs as a mechanism for reducing erosion and damage from storm surges

Assisted migration

Relocate species that are in danger of losing their habitat

Captive breeding/assisted propagation

Assist species in danger of extinction or extreme loss

Green infrastructure and Low-Impact Development (LID)

Use green features to prevent storm surges and control stormwater runoff

Policy Approaches

Comprehensive plans

Identify Adaptation Action Areas (as defined in the Florida Statutes) in areas at an increased risk of flooding due to sea-level rise, including AAAs that protect natural resources; use natural adaptation approaches in these areas

Land-Development Regulations

Incorporate physical approaches into local regulations

Process Approaches

Leverage intellectual and material capital via collaborations among stakeholders

Work beyond jurisdictional boundaries to develop collaborations between government and natural-resource-management agencies; engage staff from multiple departments (natural-resource-management, sustainability, extension, planning, and growth-management) as well as experts from other organizations, such as the water-management districts, national parks and forests, environmental groups, US Geological Survey, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and US Fish and Wildlife Service

Reach consensus on scientific data

Establish agreement upon projections and data sets through "science cafes," media, and Extension outreach

Develop localized strategies within regional approaches

Provide flexibility for individual partners to adapt locally while working regionally

Form interdisciplinary teams

Increase flexibility and on-going collaboration between planners, citizens, and scientists

Frame the issues

Recognize different values and interests while working toward common goals

Build community buy-in

Engage local residents and organizations in designing and implementing strategies

Helpful Resources

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO). Adaptation planning.

Florida Sea Grant, Coastal Planning Policy Tools

Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange

Georgetown Climate Center, Adaptation Clearinghouse

Sea Level Changes in the Southeastern United States: Past, Present and Future

Florida Water Management and Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change

National Park Service, Climate Change Response Strategy

National Fish, Wildlife & Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy

EPA Climate Ready Estuaries

Marshes on the Move

Creating Resilient Water Utilities (CRWU)

Rolling Easements


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Deyle, R.E., K. C. Bailey, and A. Matheny. 2007. Adaptive Response Planning to Sea Level Rise in Florida and Implications for Comprehensive and Public-Facilities Planning. Florida Planning and Development Lab, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Florida State University. Accessed March 10, 2013.

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Maschinski, J., M. S. Ross, H. Liu, J. O'Brien, E. J. von Wettberg, and K. E. Haskins. 2011. "Sinking ships: conservation options for endemic taxa threatened by sea level rise." Climate Change 107 (1–2): 147–167. doi:10.1007/s10584-011-0083-z.

Millar, C. I., N. L. Stephenson, and S. L. Stephens. 2007. "Climate change and forests of the future: Managing in the face of uncertainty." Ecological Applications 17(8): 2145–2151. doi: 10.1890/06-1715.1

Noss, R. F. 2011. "Between the devil and the deep blue sea: Florida's unenviable position with respect to sea level rise." Climatic Change 107 (1): 1–16. doi: 10.1007/s10584-011-0109-6.

Rizkalla, C. E. and A. Savage. 2011. "Impact of seawalls on loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) nesting and hatching success." Journal of Coastal Research 27(1): 166–173. doi: 10.2112/JCOASTRES-D-10-00081.1


1. This document is WC171, one of a series of the Department of Agricultural Education and Communication, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date July 2014. Revised January 2018. Visit the EDIS website at
2. Ondine Wells, former research assistant and data analyst, Program Development and Evaluation Center; Whitney Gray, former sea-level rise coordinator, UF/IFAS Florida Sea Grant; Paul Monaghan, associate professor, Extension educator, Department of Agricultural Education and Communication; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.