Stories in Maryland/DC

Strengthening Maryland's Coasts

Helping Maryland’s critical coastal habitats and historic communities adapt to the effects of climate change.

The rising sun bathes a coastal wetland in Maryland in soft pink light. Small islands of marsh grass dot the open water.
COASTAL MARYLAND Coastal wetlands play a crucial role as a first line of defense from storm surges. © Kent Mason

Sea levels in the Chesapeake Bay have risen about a foot in the last century—an alarming rate at more than twice the global average. By 2050, models project that we could see an average of two feet of sea-level rise. With more than 7,000 miles of Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay shoreline, our communities across the state are already experiencing flooding, marsh loss and saltwater damage to agricultural fields.

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

The sun sets over coastal wetlands in Maryland. Slim fingers of marshy land extend into the wide, rippling water. The setting sun illuminates a large bank of clouds gathering on the horizon.
A More Resilient Maryland We're using strategic science to identify the wetlands on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore with the greatest potential to survive in the face of sea-level rise. © Matt Kane / TNC

Resilient Protection Frameworks

With sea-level rise transforming landscapes, TNC is aiming to address the intersection of marsh migration and landowner resilience. Building on the foundation established by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), TNC has designed a project to lead marsh protection, coastal management and environmental finance experts in the development of resilient protection frameworks.

The frameworks will update protection easements and management plans to account for the impacts of sea-level rise. The goal of these frameworks are to ensure the healthy landward migration of Maryland’s tidal marshes while simultaneously preserving the cultural and financial interests of communities and landowners. 

A $2 million partnership with Lockheed Martin is funding the development of the resilient protection frameworks. This generous grant is also helping to fund our efforts to strengthen natural ecosystems, engage communities in adaptation planning and protect 4,000 acres of critical wetlands by 2025.

White-capped waves strike against the edge of a coastal wetland, slowly eroding the vegetation. In the background a man guides a small blue floating platform, part of a NOAA-funded research project.
Rising Seas, Stronger Waves The NOAA funded Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise (EESLR) study aims to better understand how coastal habitats can mitigate flooding in coastal communities. © Jay Fleming Photography

Studying the Ecological Effects of Sea-Level Rise

Along Maryland’s Chesapeake and Atlantic coasts, tidal wetlands act as the first line of defense against storms and rising seas. To better quantify how these natural coastal features reduce the impacts of storm surge, TNC partnered with George Mason University (GMU) and the Maryland DNR on a wave attenuation study in 2018. After collecting data for one year from sensors installed on a Deal Island marsh, researchers found a striking data point: the first few feet of tidal marsh reduced wave height by up to 90%.

A woman crouches in the shallow water at the edge of a wetland. She holds a joystick pad in her hands, using it to deploy a small rectangular drone through the murky brown water.
Collecting Data Deploying an underwater drone at a study site at Franklin Point State Park. © Jay Fleming Photography

The success of the Deal Island wave attenuation study led to a three-year grant from NOAA’s Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise (EESLR) Program to study and quantify the benefits of coastal habitats across Maryland's Chesapeake and Atlantic coasts. Now complete, the data from this study are being fed into models that are driving coastal conservation efforts led by state and federal agencies, and other NGO partners, around the Chesapeake Bay. TNC understands that demonstrating ways that nature provides value to people and communities is the best way to get real conservation results on the ground.

An infographic shows a gradient spanning from water to land.
An infographic shows a gradient spanning from water to land.
EESLR Project As part of the Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise (EESLR) project, The Nature Conservancy used modeling data to create a series of custom illustrations that demonstrate the changes that are predicted to occur across a variety of Chesapeake Bay coastal habitats between 2010 and 2100. © The Nature Conservancy
A road goes through a main street that is surrounded by water on all sides.
Crisfield in Maryland The Nature Conservancy is working in the town of Crisfield, Maryland to help the community develop climate adaptation strategies. © Jay Fleming

Building Resilient Communities

Creating a Model for Flood Adaptation in Crisfield

The city of Crisfield sits on the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay and is locally celebrated as the “Crab Capital of the World,” thanks to thriving oyster and crabbing industries that helped put the city on the map in the 19th century. Crisfield’s seafood industry remains a critical part of its economy, as does its growing tourism economy.

Unfortunately, Crisfield’s low elevation and proximity to the bay have made it especially vulnerable to increasing flooding in recent years, which is actively impacting the community and hampering economic growth. Tides have become more extreme, leading to more frequent nuisance flooding on roads that impedes access to important parts of the community. Even smaller storms are having a more severe impact, often forcing schools and businesses to close and leaving property owners with expensive damage and losses. As in many small coastal communities, the severity of these impacts has been disproportionate to resources available to address them.

A variety of partners have begun working with the City of Crisfield and members of its community to address these challenges, with the Eastern Shore Long-Term Recovery Committee being one of the first. More recently, The Nature Conservancy and a variety of federal, state and local partners have formed a coalition to help build local capacity and improve access to resources and technical assistance.

To TNC and our partners, Crisfield represents a place that can serve as a model for improving community resilience to flooding. Starting in 2022, this led to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funded project to assess the benefits of potential new flood adaptation strategies to support the city’s planning efforts. The team hosted a series of workshops with a Community Advisory Committee to ensure Crisfield’s social and economic goals were an integral part of the town's flood planning initiatives supported by funding from Lockheed Martin.

Another important goal of the project was to create new collaborations between Crisfield’s community leaders, residents and outside partners to increase local capacity and help move forward flood adaptation projects that benefit a range of community needs and goals. This collaborative model could be replicated in other communities facing similar challenges to better help them take charge of their futures with the support of a robust coalition of partners.

Other resilience-improvement projects that are underway include the town's creation of an early flood warning system and an effort to map all of Crisfield’s drainage infrastructure. The Eastern Shore Long-Term Recovery Committee built new, affordable, flood-safe homes in Crisfield for a number of years and is currently elevating additional homes.

Partners are also working together to develop a competitive proposal of implementable mitigation projects that include tide gates, berms, bioretention ponds and elevated roads. They are also working with Crisfield to explore how nature-based solutions such as green infrastructure and marsh restoration can support the community’s long-term resilience.

Waves lap against a ragged coastline of exposed marsh.
Coastal Invasive Phragmites, a non-native, invasive plant, grows in wetlands and along roadsides and shorelines, transforming native marsh habitats throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. © Jay Fleming Photography

Improving Coastal Wetland Management

Grant Funded Restoration

Coastal habitat restoration has traditionally addressed single sources of degradation, such as sea-level rise, erosion, invasive species, etc. However, sites are usually impacted by a myriad of human-caused stressors. To better catalogue all potential sources of marsh degradation, TNC is partnering with experts to develop an innovative marsh management decision framework model, thanks to a one-year grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). With current and projected rates of habitat loss, the Chesapeake Bay can no longer afford to continue business as usual. TNC and our partners will create an innovative decision framework that will help inform holistic tidal marsh management and restoration.

The sun rises over Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
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

Protecting Marsh Migration Zones

REPI Challenge

In late 2020, The Atlantic Test Ranges and Naval Air Station Patuxent River were awarded a $3 million grant from the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) Program to protect land on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The funds will be used to purchase easements on 4,000 acres of land, establishing a resilient and connected marsh migration corridor and preventing incompatible development within the Navy’s fly zone. The U.S. Navy will partner with TNC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others on the protection effort.

Since the award was announced, TNC has completed a land prioritization mapping exercise to identify the parcels that will provide the highest return on investment for people and nature. With TNC staff working on the ground with landowners, the Maryland REPI partnership is ready to begin the ambitious work of protecting 4,000 acres of critical coastal habitat.

Contact

Sabine Bailey
NOAA Digital Coast Fellow
email: sabine.bailey@tnc.org

Joseph Galarraga
Coastal Resilience Project Manager
email: joseph.galarraga@tnc.org

Humna Sharif
Climate Adaptation Manager
email: humna.sharif@tnc.org

Elizabeth Van Dolah
Environmental Anthropologist
email: e.r.vandolah@tnc.org

Resources

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

    Resilient Coasts Program Factsheet

    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

    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