How We Work: Resilient Coasts
Helping our coastal communities plan for and adapt to rising seas.
Maryland boasts over 7,000 miles of shoreline, making the state one of the most susceptible to erosion and flooding caused by storms and rising seas.
Fortunately, nature can help.
Coastal wetlands play a crucial role as a first line of defense from storm surges on the Atlantic coast of the U.S. We call these wetlands our “green suit of armor,” and we have them to thank for saving taxpayers a significant amount of money in disaster relief expenditures over the years.
According to a study led by the Conservancy, along with partners from the engineering, insurance and conservation sectors, wetlands in the northeastern U.S. prevented more than $625 million in direct property damages during Hurricane Sandy, reducing damages by an average of 22% in most of the affected states and nearly 30% in Maryland.
Not only have coastal wetlands saved taxpayers money in the past, they will save money into the future. Healthy wetlands require minimal infrastructure and management. Scientific data tells us which wetland strongholds need to be protected or restored, then nature does the heavy lifting.
In Maryland, we have an opportunity to set an example for the nation when it comes to balancing coastal adaptation and economic growth through new policies that value the best outcomes for both people and nature.
“Coastal strongholds” are areas that, because of their unique topographies, elevations and landforms, give threatened habitats a chance to escape rising sea levels and continue to provide vital services to people and wildlife.
A study conducted by TNC and funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers land managers a tool to gather comprehensive data – such as water quality, important wildlife areas, sediment and soil nitrogen levels – that can be used to develop targeted conservation plans across Maryland that will have the greatest chance of protecting coasts and communities against rising sea levels.
Among the strongholds identified in Maryland were the wetlands along Chincoteague Bay’s northern edge and along the shoreline of Pocomoke Sound, upstream of which the Conservancy is actively engaged in restoration work along the Pocomoke River’s floodplains to improve water quality.
With sea levels projected to rise as much as six feet by the next century, many coastal habitats – such as tidal marshes, sandy beaches and sea grass beds – could disappear forever under rising waters.
But scientists say these “strongholds” provide escape routes that allow threatened habitats to migrate inland and survive sea-level rise. The authors of the study, however, warn that man-made development and pollution could cut off these escape routes and lead to habitats being drowned out of existence.
If these important habitats are lost, it will have severe impacts on our economy, our environment and the health of our communities. Taking action now will help ensure these coastal habitats remain strong and productive so they can continue to support both people and nature.
MAKING INFORMED DECISIONS
In 2016 The Nature Conservancy and Maryland Department of Natural Resources completed a statewide Coastal Resiliency Assessment following a year-long scientific analysis. The report adds a human dimension to preservation and restoration decisions, looking at proximity to neighborhoods, population data and social factors that might affect how well certain communities are equipped to handle coastal hazards.
By shining light on habitats that help shield communities, the assessment enables state conservation planners to integrate risk-reduction benefits into their decisions. This information could have valuable applications for local planning officials.
In 2017 we supported a successful bill in the Maryland legislature that provides tax credits to land-owners who build a “living shoreline” to protect their property from erosion. Living shorelines incorporate natural features such as marsh vegetation to create or enhance habitat while controlling erosion. This policy gives private landowners, including developers, an incentive to protect and restore natural shorelines that will shield inland communities in the long-term.
The Maryland/DC chapter has also partnered with NASA to apply Earth observation data, such as satellite imagery, to better understand the extent and health of Maryland marshes. The data will help indicate to scientists where there are healthy marshes in need of protection, and degraded marshes in need of restoration, with the ultimate goal of reducing potential damage from storm surges.
When science helps us target the right places for preservation and restoration, we can also help Maryland communities become more resilient, healthier and happier places to live.
Resilient Coasts in the News
Will dunes project be Deal Islanders’ line in sand against flooding? (Bay Journal | October 29, 2018)
Coastal habitats, such as forests and wetlands, can reduce flooding and erosion. Research being conducted on Maryland's Deal Island by The Nature Conservancy and George Mason University is aimed at quantifying these natural benefits.
Sustaining wetlands to mitigate disasters and protect people (Ecological Society of America | October 1, 2018)
The editorial, co-authored by MD/DC Director of Science Ariana Sutton-Grief, discusses the need for innovations in how we manage coastal wetlands to ensure that vulnerable coastal communities can benefit from their natural protections.
Resilient Coasts Program Director