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

Stories in Maryland/DC

Strengthening Maryland's Coasts

Tackling climate change through mitigation and adaptation of coastal habitats.

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 dealing with flooding, marsh loss, and saltwater damage to agricultural fields.

The Nature Conservancy takes a two-pronged approach to tackling climate change: mitigation and adaptation. We mitigate the acceleration of climate change by working to reduce carbon emissions with renewable energy projects. And we adapt to climate change by using science to understand and adjust to the changes that we know are coming.

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

Two men stand in hip deep water installing wave energy monitoring sensors. A house sits on a small spit of land behind them.
Coastal Resilience Sensors are installed at a test site on Maryland's Deal Island to measure the differences in wave energy before, during and after storm events. © Severn Smith / The Nature Conservancy

Tidal Wetlands: Quantifying Nature's First Line of Defense

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 Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on a wave attenuation study in 2018.

After collecting data for one year from sensors installed on a Deal Island marsh, we found a striking data point: the first few feet of tidal marsh reduced wave height by up to 90 percent.

A man and woman set up monitoring equipment along the shoreline of an island in the Chesapeake Bay.
Coastal Resilience Understanding the effectiveness of natural tidal wetlands. © Severn Smith / TNC

The success of our Deal Island wave attenuation study has now led to a three-year grant from NOAA’s Effects of Sea Level Rise (ESLR) Program to study and quantify the benefits of coastal habitats across the Chesapeake and Atlantic coasts.

Through this grant, we are working with GMU, Maryland DNR and an advisory committee of regional experts and coastal managers to model how natural coastal features reduce the impact of storm surge and flooding now and into the future considering numerous sea-level rise projections. We will also develop scenario models to assess the effectiveness of different restoration techniques for improving protective coastal habitats.

The sun rises over Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The sun is reflected in the still water.
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

REPI Challenge: Protecting Marsh Migration Zones

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.

A Great egret hunting in shallow water. A large white bird with yellow legs wades in shallow water using its long narrow beak to spear fish. Tall marsh grasses line the horizon behind it.
Natural Resource Blackwater NWR was established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary. © Judy Tseng/TNC Photo Contest 2019

A Refuge on the Front Lines of Climate Change

TNC has protected and transferred more than 5,000 acres of land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge since the 1970s, with a focus in recent years on climate-resilient lands. Salt marshes, like those found at Blackwater, have the ability to adapt to rising seas, but they need space and the right conditions to migrate inland. TNC is focused on helping facilitate that transition.

The Blackwater NWR was established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. However, Blackwater’s roots extend much deeper into the soils of American history than 1933. On the same landscape, more than 100 years before the Refuge was established, Harriet Tubman was born into slavery and would later use the marshes and forests to help dozens of people escape from bondage through the “Underground Railroad.” 

Going back even further in history, to the late 1700s, two Indigenous villages were forced south by colonists to the marshes of Blackwater from their rightful lands on the Nanticoke and Choptank Rivers. Today, approximately 300 descendants known as the Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians continues to preserve and promote their rich history in this region. 

TNC is proud of our conservation work at the Blackwater Refuge. Protecting this ecologically significant landscape also preserves the history of the communities that are connected to Blackwater’s past, while ensuring the Refuge persists for nature and people to benefit from these public lands in the future.


Kelly Leo
Resilient Coasts Program Director

Jackie Specht
Coastal Science Program Manager


  • 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.

  • 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.