10 Threatened Coastlines in the U.S.

Looking down at beautiful cove with coastal vegetation on banks
Central California's Big Sur is becoming increasingly prone to landslides as a result of drought, heavy rains, and coastal erosion. lucky-photographer / Getty Images

The U.S.'s 95,000 miles of coastline are among the most scenic on the planet, from sandy white beaches to lush marshes to rocky cliffs. And yet, these treasured waterfront regions are threatened by sea level rise, development, overfishing, and pollution. The U.S. federal government says coastal erosion costs the country roughly $500 million per year in property loss, and the Fish and Wildlife Service says this phenomenon has left dozens of coastal species vulnerable. Coastlines around the country, from Alaska to the Gulf Coast, are dwindling at a rate of up to 50 feet per year.

Here are 10 compelling examples of U.S. shores in jeopardy, plus some information on the organizations committed to saving them.

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Cape Spencer

View of rocky, eroding coastline from Cape Spencer

NOAA Photo Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The area that is now Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, was once a glacier that was 4,000 feet thick and stretched for more than 100 miles. Today, it's home to several (much smaller) residual glaciers, rugged mountains, and wild coastlines—like Cape Spencer, a glacial-carved fjord system known for its picturesque lighthouse. During the 20th century alone, the region lost more than 150 miles of coastline. More recent photographs of the coast surrounding Alaska's Inland Passage show the bay continuing to chew away at the volcanic rock that separates the land and water.

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The Oregon Coast

High-angle view of a tree-covered coast and lighthouse
benedek / Getty Images

With its rainy winters and temperate summers, the Pacific Northwest is able to support a rich array of flora and fauna. Oregon alone boasts nearly 363 miles of coastline—a mix of rugged cliffs, evergreen forests, and sandy beaches—but these diverse and important ecosystems are increasingly threatened by rising sea levels. One town, Bayocean, has already fallen into the sea.

Built as a resort village in 1906, the Tillamook County community was deserted only a few decades after its inception as the land around it gave way to the sea. Today, flooding is a reality for many other towns along the green coast of Oregon. Several conservation agencies, like the North Coast Land Conservancy and Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, are working to maintain the coastline by preserving underwater habitats, making fisheries more sustainable, restoring estuaries and wetlands, and improving tide gate infrastructure so salmon can pass through them.

What Are Tide Gates?

Tide gates are devices farmers use to prevent coastal waters from moving upland. They are designed to allow water to flow freely in one direction, then to close automatically when the tide changes.

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Channel Islands

Boats lined up in busy Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island
Matthew Micah Wright / Getty Images

While coasts in California's Channel Islands National Park—including Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel—may not be eroding as quickly as others around the country, the marine sanctuaries that surround them are being threatened by a host of human activity. According to the National Park Service, these five patches of terra firma and the water around them are home to more than 2,000 plants and animals, "of which 145 are found nowhere else in the world." Yet, they require intense protection against commercial and residential fishing, offshore drilling, heavy vessel traffic, pollutants, and, of course, climate change. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary conducts research, offers educational programming, and manages a multitude of other projects to protect 1,470 square miles of this region.

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California's Central Coast

Pacific Coast Highway running along rocky coast at sunset
Doug Meek / Getty Images

California's Central Coast—generally considered to be the area between Monterey Bay and Santa Barbara County, is rich in marine resources thanks to its mixture of sandy beaches and rugged, rocky landscapes. In 2021, a chunk of the famed Pacific Cost Highway collapsed around Big Sur because of a landslide. It wasn't the first time and scientists say it certainly won't be the last.

Coastal erosion in this area occurs because of sea level rise and rain—which falls in bucket loads on drought-stricken land, causing it to slide into the sea. Because the California coast is dwindling so quickly, the state has some of the strongest ocean protection laws in the country.

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The Great Lakes

Aerial view of tree-topped rocky islands in Lake Huron
Posnov / Getty Images

The Great Lakes comprise the world's largest freshwater ecosystem by area. Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Superior, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario provide water for about 34 million people in the Great Lakes Region (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin). However, they are under constant threat by pollution, human encroachment, and invasive alien plant species that displace the native flora that has long protected the coast from erosion.

The 2020 State of the Great Lakes report estimated that more than 180 non-native aquatic organisms have entered the Great Lakes since 1800, which has caused 42% of the native species to become threatened or endangered. This, thankfully, is slowing down, as new ballast water regulations and improved infrastructure have led to the introduction of fewer species.

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Gulf Coast

Seabird sitting on tree branch on the coast in Louisiana
Juan Reed / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Gulf Coast comprises the lush inlets, bays, and lagoons that make up coastal Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. One of the U.S.'s worst environmental disaster to date occurred on this coast in 2010, when BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig spilled as much as 1.7 million gallons a day for several months into the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil kills vegetation by attacking the roots that hold soil together. Following the spill, NASA reported "a dramatic increase in shoreline erosion in parts of coastal Louisiana." Although the state has 40% of the continental U.S.'s wetlands, it also represents 80% of wetland losses. The widespread casualties are caused by spills from the ever-present oil and gas industry, yes, but also by sea level rise and persistent flooding. Organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation accept donations just for Gulf restoration.

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Chesapeake Bay

Aerial view of fort on a rocky Chesapeake Bay island
Westend61 / Getty Images

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest and most productive estuary in the U.S., containing diverse ecosystems like rivers, forests, and wetlands. It is 200 miles long—stretching across parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.—35 miles wide at its widest point, and up to 174 feet deep in places. The 15 trillion gallons of water it contains are threatened by polluted runoff from streets, farms, and sewage treatment plants. That runoff can affect drinking water, the health of the Bay's marine life, and the shape of the watershed itself, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says.

The Foundation is a force in the switch to green infrastructure. It's working to plant rooftop gardens, forests, and other natural spaces that can better capture rainwater to mitigate the runoff problem. The Chesapeake Bay Program also helps people get involved with Bay restoration, from recommending small changes at home to providing volunteer opportunities throughout the region.

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Southeast Coast

Busy Myrtle Beach with piers and buildings in background

Jonathan D. Goforth / Getty Images

The coast that spans North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Florida—called the South Atlantic Bight, or SAB—was the primary subject of a 2019 study on how global sea rise will impact coastal habitats. It's projected that 75% of this area "will have a very high erosion vulnerability" by 2030—a 30% increase from 2000. One major problem with the U.S. Southeast's 2,799 miles of coastline and its ability to sustain healthy marine life, the study notes, is the presence of hard structures lining the beaches. As the water moves inland, seabirds and other wildlife will have nowhere to go.

The Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association works to integrate coastal and ocean data to support the area's ecosystems. Other groups such as the Coastal Conversation Association of North Carolina focus specifically on certain regions along the SAB shoreline.

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Cape Cod

Houses along Cape Cod coast at sunset
Gary D Ercole / Getty Images

On the easternmost portion of Massachusetts, Cape Cod is one of the biggest barrier islands in the world. It consists of roughly 43,000 acres of woods, beaches, dunes, salt marshes, and waterways—but those waterways are slowly being poisoned by nitrogen from septic systems. The runoff from rain and snow melt creates more problems, as it can pour fertilizer, pet waste, and road salt into the bay. These toxins are especially threatening to species like eelgrass, a plant that helps to protect juvenile fish.

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service has been working to restore much of the area, including 1,500 acres of degraded salt marsh. The goal is also to improve fish access to spawning habitat and improve water quality throughout 7,3000 acres. The Association to Preserve Cape Cod is another organization helping to preserve the bay through advocacy, science, and education.

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Cape May and the Jersey Shore

Sunset over Cape May with lighthouse in background
Jon Lovette / Getty Images

New Jersey is nicknamed the Garden State because it's abundant with lush farmlands and nature preserves that run along the state's 127 miles of coastline and 83 miles of shoreline. The coastline is made up of barrier islands and bays that protect the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. Due to sea level rise, though, the space between low marsh and high marsh, an important habitat for seabirds, is growing smaller. It doesn't bode well for the red knot—one species of which has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Nature Conservancy offers several volunteer opportunities to help monitor, maintain, and preserve many of the pristine spots along Cape May and the Jersey Shore.