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Miami Miami skyline with mangroves in Biscayne Bay. © Josh Mahoney

Stories in Florida

Coastal Resilience

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.

Mangroves
Mangroves Oysters grow on the mangrove coastline of Charlotte Harbor Estuary near Punta Gorda, Florida © Carlton Ward, Jr.

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.

Wagner Creek
Wagner Creek A manatee swims in through the creek in Miami's health district © Lou Lozada/Vodagraph

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.

Coral Planting
Coral Reef Restoration The Nature Conservancy's Florida coral planting efforts in action © Rachel Hancock Davis/TNC

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. 

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron Majestic water birds of Florida © Kent Mason

Coastal Resilience Greenprint for Florida

To further our coastal resilience and climate adaptation campaign, TNC Florida is submitting a Community Development Block Grant – Mitigation funding grant application administered by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunities’ Rebuild Florida General Planning Support Program. A grant of approximately $300,000 to $400,000 would fund the project described below. If you would like to comment on this or obtain a copy of the application, please send an email to Rod Braun at rod.braun@tnc.org or Joseph Schmidt at joseph.schmidt@tnc.org on or before July 30. 

Project Description:

The Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Deltares USA (Deltares) are proposing to create a regional suite of resources that will support development of a coastal resilience “greenprint” for the most impacted and distressed (MID) areas of Florida. The objective of this Coastal Resilience Greenprint for Florida (Greenprint) is to establish natural or nature-based risk reduction strategies that can be implemented to protect vulnerable Floridians from the impacts of storm surge and sea level rise. The Greenprint will also identify a pipeline of nature-based solutions that will provide the greatest return on investment according to generally accepted metrics.

The traditional approach of building sea walls, bulkheads, revetments, and other gray infrastructure for coastal resilience and climate adaptation is expensive and carbon intensive. Gray infrastructure also transfers wave energy to other areas that may accelerate erosion of less armored property, and it characteristically does not enhance habitat or provide environmental co-benefits like carbon sequestration and space for ecosystem migration. In addition, the loss and degradation of coral reefs, mangroves, and beaches as well as other natural infrastructure like salt marshes and oyster reefs leaves the growing population of Floridians more vulnerable to climate change. An estimated 4.6 million people – and 5,300 square miles of property – will be at risk by 2050.

Today, natural infrastructure already provides significant risk reduction benefits through attenuation of storm surge and wave heights as well as reduction in the extent of inland inundations. A recent study funded in part by TNC concluded that mangroves in Florida protected approximately 625,000 people and prevented $1.5 billion in direct flood damages during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Therefore, restoration and expansion of natural infrastructure as well as the deployment of nature-based solutions can play an even larger – and quantifiable – role in protecting people and businesses tomorrow.

Nature-based solutions; including natural, green, and green-gray or hybrid infrastructure, are motivated or inspired by nature. They offer environmental, economic, and social benefits while increasing resilience. Natural infrastructure generally refers to the incorporation of existing natural landscapes or the restoration of natural landscapes such as living shorelines and may include enhanced management to provide a set of desired benefits. Green infrastructure generally refers to engineered strategies for management of stormwater that mimic natural processes or features. Green-gray or hybrid infrastructure generally refers to engineered strategies that combine natural or green infrastructure with a degree of hardening to maximize effectiveness and desired benefits.

The Greenprint is anticipated to pose options for local communities throughout Florida to determine the risk reduction potential of one or more nature-based solutions or nature-based resilience project typologies. These project typologies will incorporate publicly available vegetation, topographic, and bathymetric data to model the impacts of various storm return periods (e.g., 10 - 500 year) and sea level rise (SLR) scenarios based on local sea level rise projections (e.g., SE Climate Compact, Tampa Bay Resiliency Coalition). Resultant storm surge and wave height elevations from modeling will be used to predict flood losses or damages to impacted assets. The analysis will include preliminary benefit-costs for modeled locations to determine areas or regions where the return on investment is greatest. This analysis will be further explored to determine potential correlation with a reduction in flood insurance premiums under the NFIP Community Rating System incentive program.

To accomplish the objectives of the Greenprint, TNC and Deltares will also create a technical advisory committee, which will generally focus on three items:

  • Best Practices – A road map for nature-based solutions or nature-based resilience projects on the ground including restoration techniques and concepts. The resulting section will provide a roadmap to be used by local governments, state agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs) to utilize best practices for nature-based resilience projects throughout Florida. The project typologies will be identified for flood modeling analysis.
  • Modeling – Synthesis of available data and newly generated, sophisticated and granular flood modeling analysis (interactive) that recommends sites throughout Florida that will produce the greatest resilience benefits for the lowest amount of investment.
  • Scale – Guidance for local and regional governments to apply this approach in coastal communities and a series of public information webinars.

This work builds on several nature-based demonstration projects currently being implemented by TNC in Florida and supports with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's efforts on resilient coastlines. The Greenprint is expected to also leverage results from US Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Back Bay Study in Miami-Dade County and future avoided loss modeling (baseline data) from USACE’s South Atlantic Study that will be performed for the Atlantic Coast of Florida. Further building on the South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) flood protection level of service studies in South Florida, flood damages will be quantified.

Expanding this work across Florida is critical to protect people and assets and also provides environmental services such as carbon sequestration, habitat and water quality benefits. Utilizing Deltares’ expertise in landscape modeling, their software will be the foundation for risk reduction modeling in Florida.

The initial focus of these efforts will be along the Gulf coast of Florida from Pasco County to Collier County and along the Atlantic coast of Florida from Miami-Dade County to Volusia County with possible expansion to Duval, Flagler, Monroe, and St Johns Counties if allowed by awarded grants funds.