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Impacts of sea level rise and climate change on coastal plant species in the central California coast

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Local increases in sea level caused by global climate change pose a significant threat to the persistence of many coastal plant species through exacerbating inundation, flooding, and erosion. In addition to sea level rise (SLR), climate changes in the form of air temperature and precipitation regimes will also alter habitats of coastal plant species. Although numerous studies have analyzed the effect of climate change on future habitats through species distribution models (SDMs), none have incorporated the threat of exposure to SLR. We developed a model that quantified the effect of both SLR and climate change on habitat for 88 rare coastal plant species in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties, California, USA (an area of 23,948 km2). Our SLR model projects that by the year 2100, 60 of the 88 species will be threatened by SLR. We found that the probability of being threatened by SLR strongly correlates with a species’ area, elevation, and distance from the coast, and that 10 species could lose their entire current habitat in the study region. We modeled the habitat suitability of these 10 species under future climate using a species distribution model (SDM). Our SDM projects that 4 of the 10 species will lose all suitable current habitats in the region as a result of climate change. While SLR accounts for up to 9.2 km2 loss in habitat, climate change accounts for habitat suitability changes ranging from a loss of 1,439 km2 for one species to a gain of 9,795 km2 for another species. For three species, SLR is projected to reduce future suitable area by as much as 28% of total area. This suggests that while SLR poses a higher risk, climate changes in precipitation and air temperature represents a lesser known but potentially larger risk and a small cumulative effect from both.

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