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Study: Cumberland impacts likely few
Compared to other national seashores on the Atlantic Coast, Cumberland Island is predicted to be among the least vulnerable to the impacts of climate change through the end of the century.

A National Park Service study ranks Cape Cod No. 1 in terms of being least vulnerable when factors such as storm surges, likelihood of a hurricane strike, low elevation, island disintegration and rising sea levels are considered.

The study ranks Assateague Island, Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout and Canaveral national seashores in the top tier of vulnerability, followed in order by Fire Island, Cumberland Island and Cape Cod.

That doesn't mean the Cumberland is not expected to see impacts from climate change.

The average temperature is expected to rise anywhere from 1.5 degrees to 5.1 degrees by 2060 and anywhere from 3.3 degrees to 10.2 degrees by 2090, according to the study.

"Of the 132 years in the instrumental period, the last 25 years (1987-2011) are all among the 27 hottest years," according to the study. "The last 11 years include nine of the 10 hottest years. The last 35 years have all been above the 20th century average."

Visitors during summer months often go to the beach, but if the temperatures approach 100 degrees "the experience could be a lot less enjoyable," the study said.

The increase in temperature will affect wildlife such as sea turtles and alligators. More females hatch from sea turtle eggs when temperatures are hotter. More male alligators hatch during hotter temperatures.

Warmer sea temperatures are predicted, which means stronger hurricanes will form.

"North Atlantic hurricanes have become stronger in the last 30 years -- especially the most powerful ones," the study said. "This increase in strength coincides with about a two-degree (Fahrenheit) increase in sea surface temperatures where hurricanes form."

The study predicts hurricanes will continue to grow more powerful this century "with higher peak winds, rainfall intensity and storm surge height and strength."

While Cumberland's elevation is high enough to withstand most storms, a direct hit from a Category 5 storm would be catastrophic.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a group of barrier islands off the Louisiana coast were inundated by the storm surge. The islands were completely submerged, stripping them of sand.

"What remained was a discontinuous series of marsh fragments," the study said. "Erosion has continued since 2005, suggesting a threshold has been crossed, and natural processes may not contribute to the rebuilding of the barrier in the future."

The study predicted 97 percent of the Cumberland coastline would be vulnerable to a storm surge if the island took a hit from a Category 5 storm.

Hotter seas will also promote the spread of toxic algae, particularly red tides, which produce a poison that affects manatees, which are seen near the shores of Cumberland.

Hurricanes appear to be the biggest threat to Cumberland, according to the study, but the island is relatively wide and stable, with relatively few areas one meter or less above sea level.

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