This collaborative project (VT, USGS Sea Level Rise Hazards Project, USFWS, and NPS) is focused on developing models to predict effects of sea-level rise and human development to barrier island habitat, specifically the nesting habitat of the piping plover (Charadrius melodus).
Sea-level rise rates along the mid-Atlantic U.S. coast are among the highest rates on U.S. coasts.  More than 300 barrier islands that fringe the Atlantic Coast are valued for both the habitat they provide for numerous wildlife species, including endangered species, and are a favourite destination for recreational activities such as swimming, beach driving, fishing, and camping.  But trying to predict the effects of sea-level rise is an complex process, made even more complex by the fact that most of the Atlantic Coast barrier islands have been modified in some way by human development and therefore do not evolve and change over time in the same way that unaltered barrier islands do.
To understand such a complex system, we must first understand how specific features of barrier islands are connected and how these connections in turn affect how wildlife use habitat.  We have built a model (Gieder et al. 2014) to understand these connections using the piping plover, a small shorebird that nests along the mid-Atlantic Coast.  This shorebird is a perfect candidate for understanding the dynamic changes on barrier islands because it responds rapidly to changes in its environment and it nests in low-lying open sandy areas, precisely the areas that are most vulnerable to sea-level rise.
Our model connects the physical features of barrier islands, such as dunes and vegetation, to piping plover nest occurrence.  We have connected this model to another model developed by our partners at the USGS (Gutierrez et al. In revision) that helps us understand how sea-level rise and anthropogenic features such as artificial dunes or inlets affect barrier island features.  Information generated from these linked models can then help managers make decisions about future wildlife habitat and recreational management.
Predators can have a very large effect on the success of piping plover nests and chicks, so we also are monitoring plover predators on the island using cameras set up over several seasons.  These cameras capture images of animals as they walk by, and we can use these images to understand how predators use habitat, where they occur with other species, and even what their population number is if we can identify individuals.   We can then incorporate this information into our model to understand how predators interact with piping plovers and how this interaction affects barrier island change resulting from sea-level rise and human development.
The project is now entering a second phase of work where the same collaborative group is working with National Seashores and National Wildlife Refuges from North Carolina to Massachusetts to test the application of existing models to a wider geographic and geologic range of conditions, and as necessarily, to adapt the models to be applicable throughout the breeding range of the Atlantic Coast population of piping plovers.