Sandy One Year Later: Natural Habitats Vital to Protecting Coasts

A recent study points to the critical value of natural habitats in protecting people from devastation by coastal storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Superstorm Sandy's Aftermath - How Nature Can Protect Us

Follow students from our LEAF program as they restore coasts and see how nature can protect us from future superstorms.


Coastal Restoration and Superstorm Sandy

See how the South Cape May Meadows helped protect homeowners from Superstorm Sandy.


One year and $37 billion in damage later, we mark the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in New Jersey. The historic storm of 2012 left our coastal communities forever changed, and many remain struggling to recover.

Weather patterns are becoming increasingly severe and unpredictable. Consider that when Superstorm Sandy hit, some of our waterfront towns were still rebuilding from 2011’s Hurricane Irene. A report by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection points out that 8 of the 10 worst storms in New Jersey history have occurred since 1999. Fall hurricane season no longer means a half day’s power outage and a day off from school. It means being prepared for the potential of strong storms with wide ranging impacts.

A recent study by the Natural Capital Project, co-authored by The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva and Stanford University’s Katie Arkema, points to the critical value of natural habitats in protecting U.S. residents and their property from devastation by coastal storms like Hurricane Sandy. The study offers the first comprehensive map for the entire U.S. coastline of where and how much protection we get from these habitats — from sand dunes to oyster and coral reefs to sea grasses and mangroves.

Key findings from the study:
• About 16% of the immediate U.S. coastline (within one kilometer of the shore) is classified as in “high hazard” areas—home to 1.3 million people and $300 billion in residential property;
• Sea level rise will increase the amount of highly threatened people and property by 30-60% by the year 2100;
• Florida, New York and California are the states where coastal habitats defend the greatest number of people (including the elderly and the poor) and the greatest amount in property values from storm risk.
• 67% of the U.S. coastline is protected by natural habitat — which, if lost, would double the number of poor families, elderly people and total property value in the areas at highest risk from coastal hazards such as storm surges.

Kareiva says, “Hardening our shorelines with sea walls and other costly engineering shouldn’t be the default solution. This study helps us identify those places and opportunities we have to keep nature protecting our coastal communities.”

The Natural Capital Project is also conducting a New Jersey-specific study, expected to be complete in November 2013, that calculates a hazard index for the New Jersey coastline based on different sea-level rise scenarios. The index shows where coastal habitats play the greatest role in reducing exposure of shorelines, and identifies the most vulnerable people and property along New Jersey’s coast. The study results help show where conservation and restoration of coastal habitats can provide the greatest protective value for New Jersey.

The Nature Conservancy in New Jersey is working to promote the use of nature-based solutions like healthy marshes, beaches and dunes, oyster reefs and floodplains, along with traditional man-made infrastructure, in our state to reduce flooding risks and other storm hazards for coastal communities. To make the strongest case possible, we are working to quantify the economic, ecological and social benefits of New Jersey’s coastal habitats through several projects expected to finish by the year’s end.

With funding from the New Jersey Recovery Fund, the Chapter is developing the following economic studies:

South Cape May Meadows
The Conservancy’s restored South Cape May Meadows preserve served as a model for the protective role of nature during Hurricane Sandy, safeguarding the local communities from flooding and storm surge. In this study, Chapter scientists analyze the economic and social benefits of the preserve’s ecological restoration, including its role in reducing flooding during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy and in boosting open space and ecotourism in the area.

New Jersey’s Marshes
In this study, Conservancy scientists and the University of California-Santa Cruz Center for Integrated Spatial Research compare flood damage in New Jersey communities with and without marshes during Hurricane Sandy.

Engineered Beaches and Dunes
In partnership with Western Carolina University, The Conservancy evaluates how Jersey Shore areas with engineered beaches and dunes fared during Hurricane Sandy compared to those without them, and quantify how effective key seawalls were in protecting shore communities.

Oysters in Gandy’s Beach
Independent of the New Jersey Recovery Fund, the New Jersey chapter will be testing the effectiveness of oyster reefs as breakwaters to reduce wave energy and erosion of the marshes at the Conservancy’s Gandy’s Beach Preserve. The reefs will protect the coastal habitats around Gandy’s Beach and Money Island, which in turn protect homes, businesses and roads in the area. It will also provide habitat for oyster larvae, and serve as nursery habitat for commercially and recreationally important fish.

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