The State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed

This analysis assesses the current conditions and projected trends for the Narragansett Bay, a watershed that spans Rhode Island and Massachusetts and is home to 1.95 million people. The research is the culmination of multiple years of study by universities, organizations, federal partners, and agencies in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The results are presented in a shorter summary document and a 500-page technical report. In addition to other stressors including water quality and pollution, urbanization, and changes to habitats, the researchers look at the impacts of climate change now and in the future. They find that climate change has already impacted the Bay, and that trend is likely to become more rapid going forward.

The research summarizes climate impacts to Narragansett Bay as related to warming temperatures, changes in precipitation, and sea level rise. The researchers found that these changes are already resulting in higher populations of warm-water fish species in estuarine fish communities, as the waters warm. Going forward, the watershed region is expected to see more winter rain and 9 to 11 feet of sea level rise by 2100, threatening bridges, roads, buildings, and coastal habitats. These impacts will not occur evenly across the watershed, since some areas are geographically more susceptible. It is noted that salt marshes face a unique threat from sea level rise and climate change. "Of the approximately 3,320 acres of salt marsh in Narragansett Bay, a significant proportion may be submerged or lost if sea level rises one to five feet. Frequent flooding and conversion of some Narragansett Bay salt marshes to mudflats and open water is already occurring, as these coastal wetlands cannot gain sufficient elevation to keep up with sea level rise." 

The technical report includes more detailed analysis of temperature, precipitation, and sea level rise impacts. For each, it describes the methodology applied, the current trends, projections for the future, a discussion of how these trends are likely to impact habitats and people, and a description of any data gaps and future research needs.

Publication Date: 2017

Related Organizations:

  • Narragansett Bay Estuary Program

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  • Assessment

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