EU Adaptation Strategy for Climate Change for Coasts and Marine Areas

By Magdalena Muir

Adaptation to climate change is crucial for reducing the risk and damage from current and future impacts of climate change in a cost-effective manner and to exploit potential benefits. The European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation on 16 April 2013. The staff document discussed here ( accompanies the Communication “An EU strategy on adaptation to climate change”. See for more information on this broader EU communication

.The Communication “An EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change” stresses that coastal zones are particularly vulnerable regions, and also indicates that the EU’s outermost regions are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and extreme weather events. This staff working document follows up on the “Climate Change and Water, Coasts and

Marine Issues”  which accompanied the earlier 2009 White paper on adaptation.


The  staff documents provide a current overview of the main impacts of climate change on coastal zones and marine issues, not only considering its impacts on the environment but also on  economic sectors and social systems. The document points out knowledge gaps and existing efforts of the European Union to best adapt to the impacts of climate change on coastal zones and marine issues. It also highlights further efforts needed, in particular regarding closing knowledge gaps for better-informed decision-making, as well as better cooperation for countries across borders to make Europe more resilient to climate change.

Coastal zones and marine waters have already been greatly affected by rapid urban development, draining of coastal marshes, changes in river and sediment flow, expansion of

irrigation for agriculture and unsustainable fishing practices. Climate change increases the pressure on already-fragile ecosystems. It has already had an impact on sea temperature, sea level rise and ocean acidification. These changes have had a follow-on impact on ocean circulation, coastal erosion, biodiversity and ecosystems. The frequency and intensity of most types of extreme weather events is expected to change as a result of climate change. All of these changes affect coastal populations and the marine and maritime economy.

Some highlights and conclusions of the staff document, supported by science and consistent with many prior predictions, are as follows:

Impacts on coastal populations and tourism

Approximately 52 million people in Europe live in low-elevation coastal zones. In north-western Europe, high population densities living in coastal zones could pose a considerable concern in the future with regard to a changing  climate and the impacts this will have on local economies. In Europe an estimated 13  million people would be negatively affected by a one-metre rise in seal level. Sea level rise (in combination with storm surges) could increase the risk of flooding, coastal erosion and salt water intrusion to groundwater resources and to rivers/deltas and estuaries in these areas

Sea level rise and sea storms are likely to increase risks of inundation and erosion of coastal road transport networks, disrupting the transport of goods and the mobility of

local communities. Increased inspections and repairs may become necessary due to erosion of transport structures due to inundation and saline intrusion.

Coastal tourism is by far the most significant contributor to the tourism industry in Europe, both in terms of tourist numbers and generation of income, and also largest single maritime economic activity. Climate change is expected to reshape the tourism industry and will impact the geographical and seasonal distribution of  tourists. In the Mediterranean, tourism is likely to shift away from the summer and become more attractive in the spring and autumn. In northern Europe, good months for coastal tourism are expected to increase.


Sea level rise

Some recent studies have shown that sea-level rise could be even more significant. This is due to ice sheet dynamics, as the warming of the atmosphere and oceans is leading to an accelerating loss of ice from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and this melting could increase the rate of sea-level rise in the future substantially. Better and more accurate would assist decision making on adaptation.

Ocean acidification

Ocean acidification may influence the structure and productivity of primary and secondary benthic and planktonic production, which in turn may affect the productivity of fish communities and higher trophic levels.

Coastal erosion

Climate change can exacerbate coastal erosion, via sea-level rise, increased storminess, higher waves and changes in prevalent wind and waves directions. The impact of storm surges on coastal erosion varies in different regions. There may be increased beach erosion due to increased storminess in the eastern Baltic Sea. The Atlantic region is considered resilient to rising sea levels due to extensive dune systems, while the Mediterranean coast is considered  more vulnerable because of its narrow dune systems

Coastal wetlands

Coastal ecosystems of mangroves, sea grasses and salt marshes support species highly adapted to their habitats. Many migratory species depend on tidal wetlands for part of their seasonal migrations. Climate change could influence the timing and routes of these migrations. In addition, coastal erosion contributes to the loss of biodiversity and degradation of these coastal ecosystems.

Marine fish populations

Climate change influences the marine ecosystems by altering temperatures, changing wind  patterns, shifting oceanic circulation patterns, increasing ocean acidification and altering

precipitation rates and thus salinity. These changes have the potential to change the  distribution, abundance, size and behaviour of fish. Changes in fish migration have been observed for species such as mackerel. The abundance, distribution and variety of  plankton will change. In warmer waters ,fish tend to be smaller, which could affect ecosystems.


Changes in species distribution, abundance, reproductive capacity, behaviour and  growth rates are possible. Ocean acidification may be potentially wide-ranging, affecting species with calcareous skeletons such as molluscs and corals, and possibly affecting fish behaviour. Any  changes to individual species will have consequences for the species composition of the different marine ecosystems and predator-prey relationships.

Knowledge gaps

Remaining knowledge gaps on climate change impacts on coastal areas, marine ecosystems  and maritime sectors relate to four broad categories: global drivers; local impacts; socioeconomic drivers and adaptation costs and benefits. Due the importance of these conclusions, the staff document  is directly quoted and states:

  • “Global drivers: further observations and research are needed to better understand the  interactions between oceans-atmosphere which are essential elements of the planet´s climate machinery as well as to reduce uncertainty in phenomena that have an impact on global sea-level rise, in particular the melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, or on ocean acidification. This could help in adaptation policy- and decision-making. This would also provide more insight into low probability-high impact scenarios.
  • Regional and local impacts: further observations are needed at a regional and local level on changes in temperature, seawater acidity, coastal erosion and ecosystems. Such consequences could then be used for better climate risk assessments in coastal and marine economic sectors, and likewise, better informed adaptation action.
  • Socio-economic drivers: additional work is needed to better estimate the evolution of population, economic growth, and land cover and their impacts on marine and maritime economic sectors, as well as their impacts on urban and rural development in coastal areas. This would help national and regional authorities develop the most appropriate and cost-effective strategy for coastal protection.
  • Adaptation costs and benefits: additional research is needed on the costs and benefits of alternative adaptation actions in coastal areas. For instance, some of the benefits have not been monetized, like the assessment of the implications of ecosystem-based adaptation measures.”