Using Nature Itself to Help Protect Florida's Coastline
Natural structures like oyster reefs, mangrove stands and marshes help protect Florida's coastline. At 40 projects sites throughout the world, including Florida, the Conservancy is demonstrating that nature can reduce the impact of coastal hazards. Florida’s coral reefs, oyster reefs, beaches and mangroves can help protect people and property without negatively affecting the wildlife habitat, recreational value or economic benefits of natural areas. Green spaces in our urban areas can provide buffers to flooding and, at the same time, create sustainable neighborhoods that promote healthy living.
With the population of Florida’s coastal counties growing to more than 13.8 million, development, urbanization and destruction of natural systems have left communities more vulnerable to the impacts of natural hazards like rising sea level and higher temperatures. Climate change is likely to increase these hazards. Natural infrastructure or systems can reduce their impact. They can buffer shores, store stormwater and reduce incoming wave and storm energy. In doing so, natural infrastructure moderates coastal erosion and flooding.
The Conservancy works to identify, protect and restore areas and systems that help reduce the impacts of coastal hazards. In many cases, we can combine natural solutions with man-made built or “grey” infrastructure to provide greater long-term resilience and more cost-effective outcomes than built infrastructure alone. In addition to protection, natural systems or hybrid systems supply other benefits, such as improved water quality, recreational space and healthier fisheries.
Conservancy scientists have found, in some regions, a healthy coral reef can reduce 97 percent of a wave’s energy before it hits the shore, and just 100 meters of mangrove trees can reduce wave height by 66 percent. While first response to coastal vulnerability tends to rely heavily on conventional gray infrastructure or coastal armoring, we now have substantial evidence that coastal ecosystems can protect the coastline and in some cases reduce storm surge beyond the capabilities of hard infrastructure.
South Florida is a Special Concern
South Florida’s heavily populated, coastal urban areas face the greatest risks, but nature can transform cities into more resilient, livable and flourishing places by protecting them against those threats.
South Florida already feels the impacts of climate change. “King tides,” excessively hot days and changes in the migratory patterns of birds are happening now, and they are not going away any time soon. To adapt, South Florida must reimagine its cities and communities, and find better ways to live in a more water-laden world. Key to this adaptation are large-scale infrastructure projects, which could also become important to the region’s economic future.
We’ve embarked on an urban conservation program in South Florida, one of the largest and most vulnerable metropolitan regions in the United States. Infrastructure, homes, businesses and natural areas from Key West to Palm Beach are already at or near sea level, making them vulnerable to coastal hazards. For many South Florida residents, repetitive flooding has become a consequence of today’s highest tides. In Miami, sunny day flooding has been featured widely in the media. It’s costly to mitigate this flooding with pumps or raising sidewalks and roadways. But, by bringing the power of nature to cities, we can fundamentally shift practices and policies to create more resilient communities, while strengthening the connection between people and the natural world.
Partnerships for Nature Based Solutions
In Miami-Dade County,two demonstration projects, our Wagner Creek green spaces project in Miami's Health District, and our South Dade Wetlands protection modeling project, highlight the effectiveness of natural infrastructure. We continue to work collaboratively with partners throughout the state on resilience and restoration, and expect the project at Wagner Creek to bring organizations and agencies together to ensure its success, including the University of Miami, Miami-Dade County, City of Miami, community and environmental education groups, and other stakeholders.
The Conservancy is an active participant in the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a four-county initiative established to coordinate climate mitigation and adaptation activities across Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach Counties. As part of this engagement, we are leading the Compact’s Shoreline Resilience Working Group, which focuses on identifying and promoting healthy natural systems, engineered living shorelines and hybrid “grey-green” approaches to increase coastal resilience in southeast Florida and the Florida Keys.
Beyond South Florida
Our coral reef restoration work along Florida’s Atlantic coast and our oyster restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico are informing the science of how nature may help reduce wave energy and shoreline erosion, while supporting habitats for wildlife and communities for people.
We are also developing innovative modeling tools to help inform decision-making, such as our coastal defense app, hosted on our coastal resilience website.
What we do in Florida in the next several years to mitigate carbon matters. Florida is the sixth largest emitter in the country and Florida’s economy is larger than more than 100 of the 195 countries included in the Paris Agreement. Energy policy in the United States is largely developed at the state level. States can and must commit to a different future, in spite of lagging federal support and in spite of state politics.
There is no doubt the Sunshine State is falling short on its enormous potential through clean energy development. Florida must accelerate its development of solar energy, bringing along a new industry that will serve to diversify Florida’s economy and bring local, good paying jobs.
The very same measures that will address climate change also offer significant economic benefits to states and local economies. The solar energy workforce is growing, and the solar industry in the United States is adding jobs at 12 times the rate of the U.S. economy as a whole. Florida ranks fifth nationally for the number of solar jobs, and new Florida solar jobs are being created each year.
What we do now is incredibly important for our communities and for the future of our world. It is a large undertaking. It requires a reinvention of the entire energy sector and a reimagining of our communities as places that use resources and function in an entirely different way. Change must come from everywhere – companies, cities, national leaders, nonprofit organizations—all of us.
Help us continue our conservation work in Florida.