Sun rise casts pink light over a coastal MD wetland.
COASTAL MARYLAND Coastal wetlands play a crucial role as a first line of defense from storm surges. ©: Kent Mason

Stories in Maryland/DC

How We Work: Resilient Coasts

Helping our coastal communities plan for and adapt to rising seas

Natural coastal features such as wetlands and forests play a crucial role as a first line of defense from storms and rising seas across the more than 7,000 miles of Maryland coast. We call these natural features our “green suit of armor.”

Maryland's Green Suit of Armor Can nature help reduce the impacts of flooding on vulnerable Eastern Shore communities?

Maryland’s Eastern Shore is the third most vulnerable region to sea-level rise in the United States, after the Mississippi Delta and South Florida. With more than 7,000 miles of Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay shoreline, our communities across the state are already dealing with flooding, marsh loss, saltwater damage to agricultural fields and other issues related to sea level rise.

We are on the front lines of climate change. Nature can help.

 Sensors are installed in the Chesapeake Bay, on the beach, and in the marsh to measure the differences in wave energy before, during and after storm events.  Photo © Severn Smith / The Nature Conservancy
Sensors are installed in the Chesapeake Bay, on the beach, and in the marsh to measure the differences in wave energy before, during and after storm events. Photo © Severn Smith / The Nature Conservancy © © Severn Smith / The Nature Conservancy

Natural Solutions

Maryland's Deal Island provides a living laboratory scientists from The Nature Conservancy, George Mason University and Maryland DNR to study how green infrastructure like forests, dunes, and marsh can help reduce the impacts of flooding on this—and other—vulnerable Eastern Shore communities.

In 2018, researchers from TNC and GMU installed sensors along a narrow beach and marsh on Deal Island to gather data for a year-long study. The carefully placed monitors will record how different natural features impact wave energy. The research could help planners design strategies that use natural landscapes in erosion and flood prevention.

We know that coastal wetlands serve as a crucial first line of defense for inland communities during large storm events, and this study will allow us to quantify those benefits through science.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge contains one-third of Maryland's tidal wetlands, which provide storm protection to lower Dorchester County.
Sunset over Blackwater River Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge contains one-third of Maryland's tidal wetlands, which provide storm protection to lower Dorchester County. © Ray Paterra / USFWS

Coastal Strongholds

Coastal wetlands support significant biodiversity, and serve as a natural defense against flooding and erosion, hazards that are increasing as sea levels rise and extreme storms occur more frequently.

Our coastal wetlands are also in jeopardy from rising waters. To persist, coastal wetlands must keep pace with sea level rise or migrate to higher land. The Nature Conservancy has identified “coastal strongholds” across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions.

These strongholds are areas with intact tidal wetlands connected to sufficient migration space to allow species to adapt to rising seas. They will continue providing vital ecosystem services to people and wildlife into the next century.

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.

In 2018, we protected more than 2,000 acres of land on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, including nearly 1,500 acres of wetland adaptation areas. Land protection, the oldest tool in TNC's toolbox, still plays an important role in our conservation strategy to facilitate marsh migration so that our green suit of armor can persist in the face of a changing climate.

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.

Data Collaboration

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.

Contact

Kelly Leo
Resilient Coasts Program Director
email: kleo@tnc.org

  • Resilient Coasts Program Factsheet

    (608.67 KB PDF)

    Helping our coastal communities plan for and adapt to rising seas.

    DOWNLOAD
  • Overview of the statewide coastal resiliency assessment completed in 2016 to inform coastal conservation and restoration decisions.

    Maryland Coastal Resiliency Assessment Factsheet

    (445.27 KB PDF)

    The statewide assessment results include a Natural Features Analysis, Community Flood Risk Analysis, Marsh Protection Potential Index, and the identification of Priority Shoreline Areas for conservation or restoration actions.

    DOWNLOAD