New Round Island near Pascagoula, Mississippi, looks like a sandbar between blue ocean and blue sky
PROTECTING THE COAST New Round Island near Pascagoula, Mississippi, was recently created to replace islands that have eroded. © John Stanmeyer

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First Line of Defense

As vulnerable communities prepare for the destructive effects of climate change, shoring up nature is a critical part of the plans.

Fall 2018

Ginger Strand is a writer who has written for The Iowa Review, The New England Review and The New York Times, and is a contributing editor for Orion. She lives in the Catskill Mountains.

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The aluminum work boat leaves the Pascagoula River and heads into the Mississippi Sound loaded with 12 large boxes of dune grass, but it’s five energetic young adults who make the craft feel almost too small. As the coastline recedes from view, shouts and laughter ride the warm spring breeze, and good-natured trash talk circulates with the bottle of sunscreen.

“OK, what are the hazards today—other than the whole island?” asks crew leader Lauren Kissel, corralling her troops. The group enthusiastically ticks off the dangers.

“Dehydration!”
“Heat exhaustion!”
“Snakes!”
“Quicksand!”
“ROUSs!” That stands for Rodents of Unusual Size, an acronym borrowed from a 1980s cult movie, but in this case they are talking about invasive nutria and the traps set out for them.

It’s a typical day for these GulfCorps conservation workers in training. Crew member Dana Sullivan offers a quick rundown of what the team is doing on the hazardous spit of sand otherwise known as Round Island. “We’re planting plants—right now bitter panicum,” she says. “A couple weeks ago we planted sea oats, and when we came back, the nutria had ripped them all out. ... Nutria suck,” Sullivan concludes.

About two miles off the coast of Pascagoula, Mississippi, Round Island had eroded from 200 acres down to just 25 since the 1800s. But recently the Army Corps of Engineers used material left over from dredging projects to restore the island. It doesn’t look like much, but coastal islands play an important role in reducing flooding and wave damage on the mainland during hurricanes. Furthermore, the restoration has created prime bird habitat in a region rapidly losing it. Since Round Island’s restoration, hundreds of shorebirds have nested here.

As the boat lands with a thud, snowy plovers and oyster-catchers can be seen wading in the marshy interior, laughing gulls cackle overhead, and two white pelicans flap by. Just off shore, least terns hover, then dive into the surf for a meal.

The GulfCorps workers unload the boxes of grass plugs and stack them onto a Polaris Ranger, then pile themselves onto the vehicle. “Hold on to your hats!” shouts Kissel, and the heaped utility vehicle grinds down the beach to where yesterday’s planting stopped. Before long, the team is loosening sand, making divots with spikes and dropping plugs into them.

“Welcome out to the island,” says Hunter Ferguson. With his gauged earlobes and panoply of tattoos, he doesn’t look like your typical nature nerd. His steady stream of patter is more backstreet than backwoods. But he’s eager to demonstrate how to plant the grass plugs.

“We wanna bury them up to here so the roots have the ability to survive,” he says, indicating a green spot about a third of the way up the shoot. “What we want is for the roots to all grow and interlock and make a system.”

The same might be said for the GulfCorps program. Establishing plant life on Round Island is one of many projects undertaken in this joint workplace training and conservation effort. It is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and led by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with The Corps Network, the Student Conservation Association and local organizations. Funding comes from the RESTORE Act, which disburses funds from Deepwater Horizon’s oil spill settlement. Other GulfCorps activities include controlling invasive species, restoring shorelines and wetlands, and reestablishing plants and oyster reefs.

The side benefit of restoring life along these shorelines is that it helps the coast withstand storm damage. Coastal restoration work is becoming widespread and strategic as communities wake up to the fact that a warming climate means more destructive storms and sea-level rise. It’s not about repairing what was lost in the last disaster, but bolstering natural defenses against the next Irma, Harvey or Sandy. 

Workers use tools on a sandy beach to plant grasses
DEEP ROOTS Workers from TNC’s GulfCorps program—from left, Dana Sullivan, Cameron Maxwell, Lauren Kissel and Hunter Ferguson—plant grasses on Round Island that will stabilize the sand. © John Stanmeyer

Communities all over the world are assessing their vulnerabilities, responding to what Pascal Mittermaier, TNC’s global managing director for cities, calls “a convergence of megatrends.” Already about one-third of the world’s people live near a coast—largely in densely populated cities. But many coastal cities have been built in a way that makes things like flooding and extreme heat worse.

“Add climate change and you have a terrible situation,” Mittermaier says. “But nature, which has often been overlooked by planners, architects and developers, can play an important role in helping cities manage these stresses.”

In fact, more and more cities are seeing the value in natural ecosystems as a first line of defense. San Francisco is restoring wetlands, which protect against both floods and erosion. Chicago is beefing up urban forests to help cool a warming urban area. Communities in New Jersey are restoring sand dunes that can absorb the impact of storms. “We know that nature can really play an important part in making cities more resilient and more livable,” Mittermaier says.

Such investments are especially critical in coastal communities, where susceptibility to sea-level rise and tropical storms has been increased by damage to coastal ecosystems: wetlands, mangrove swamps, dunes, coral reefs. Also known as “living shorelines,” these ecosystems reduce wave heights, absorb storm surge and lessen erosion. Restoring nature, Mittermaier points out, not only works but is cost-effective. An artificial breakwater, for instance, can cost nearly $20,000 a meter, compared with less than $1,300 per meter for a coral reef.

In Helen Wood Park along Mobile Bay, Jeff DeQuattro holds up one hand. “This is a sea wall,” he says. Then the TNC program director for GulfCorps curves his other hand and bangs it repeatedly on the wall, scooping downward. “Sea walls just send the wave energy down to erode the coastline more.” The park is on a peninsula that launches a soaring highway bridge, beyond which sits a residential neighborhood. In 2011, with funding from TNC and other partners, restoration of the shoreline began.

The Conservancy recently hosted 500 volunteers at this site to install bags of oyster shells. Today, the oyster reef is being built up even more. A large barge is loading huge cement cubes—called “oyster castles”—that will be submerged in the bay to attract more oysters. “All the projects we do will contribute to the resilience of our coastal ecosystems,” says DeQuattro.

Almost 85 percent of the world’s oyster reefs are gone. Yet they provide a buffer against storm surges and sea-level rise, offering a natural alternative to sea walls. Here in Mobile Bay, oyster reefs can reduce tropical storm damage to human communities—like the neighborhood just beyond the freeway.

South Florida has had the dubious honor of addressing threats from climate change for a long time. “We’ve been dealing with saltwater intrusion for decades,” says Jennifer Jurado, chief resilience officer for Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale. “We deal with flooding on a regular basis. And today we’re seeing these impacts increasing.”

The region has witnessed signs of sea-level rise, storm surges and sunny-day flooding—where high tides cause floods unrelated to precipitation. In the 1990s, Broward County decided to factor sea-level rise into future flood models. By 2008, it had drafted a Climate Change Action Plan with a long list of strategies, including restoring natural systems like living shorelines and dunes, adopting new standards for buildings and infrastructure, and limiting development in vulnerable areas. Some actions that might have previously encountered resistance in the community, like building sand dunes, have gained support as the impacts of climate change become clear. Even the business community has gotten involved.

“Do we sit back and just watch and hope that the exposure isn’t great?” Jurado asks. “We all know that that’s not the smart reaction. ... This isn’t a responsibility held by a few. It’s a joint responsibility that needs to be held by all.”

Farther south in the Florida Keys, where the average elevation lies at less than 5 feet above sea level, many areas are expected to be flooded within decades. But Chris Bergh, South Florida program manager and conservation director for TNC, is upbeat. “We now have pretty broad awareness that we have a serious problem,” he says. “We’re thinking about how we manage the natural systems, not just for habitat value but so they can [provide] protection for our communities.”

U.S. Highway 1, connecting the Keys to the mainland, was nearly breached in Hurricane Irma. Bergh thinks the damage was worsened by the erosion of beaches along the roadway.

“Restoration of dunes and beaches is top of mind for me right now,” Bergh says, adding that they are perfect for stopping waves and erosion. Rather than building sea walls, restoring the beach would not only defend against highway washout but also offer habitat for nesting sea turtles and shorebirds. That would contribute to the tourism economy.

“I think that’s how the future will unfold in Florida,” Bergh says: “Working more with nature instead of against it.”

Changing the approach in this way requires changing mindsets. The Conservancy has been working for more than a decade to study and share knowledge about the role nature can play in reducing coastal flood risk through its public-private partnership Coastal Resilience. In South Florida, the program’s Coastal Defense application has been used to model how mangroves and coral reefs can reduce wave energy hitting the shore. Bergh hopes this kind of information will influence both planners and private individuals to choose nature-based alternatives to sea walls.

“All these property owners are going to have to do something if they don’t want to lose their shoreline to the ocean. The more they say to construction firms that they want living shorelines or nature-based solutions, the more the market will drive the kinds of projects we know are beneficial.”

GulfCorps workers line up from the shore into the water, passing concrete blocks
Building Up A GulfCorps team creates an artifcial oyster reef near Biloxi using interlocking concrete blocks. The reef will support new marine life and protect the shoreline from waves. © John Stanmeyer

Although the general principles of restoring natural defenses are universal, each city and town must craft a custom solution to address its specific challenges. That’s what Adam Whelchel, director of science for TNC in Connecticut, makes happen. On the third day of May—and the second day this month when temperatures in metro Boston topped 90 degrees Fahrenheit—he stands in front of a packed auditorium at Tufts University. The audience has just seen a series of slides about potential hazards: FEMA flood maps, storm surge projections, models of extreme rain and snow increases, and a chart plotting the expected increase of 90-plus-degree days over the next century.

“What does 2118 look like for Tufts University?” Whelchel asks. The audience—a cross section of the college community that includes administrators, operations managers, emergency responders, professors and students—is broken into smaller groups to discuss vulnerabilities, strengths and solutions.

This is a Community Resilience Building Workshop, a process Whelchel developed. He has led or helped set up workshops for more than 200 communities—cities, small towns and college campuses—across seven states. They help communities plan for issues like flooding, heavy rains, severe winter storms, drought, water supply problems and extreme heat.

“This process is science- and data-light. It’s people-heavy,” Whelchel says as he walks toward one of the classrooms where a small group works with a facilitator. “The knowledge and expertise you need are right here in this room.” In breakout sessions, people mark up maps of the campus, highlighting roads and buildings that lie in flood zones where stormwater runoff is likely to overflow, the locations of power-dependent facilities, and vulnerable populations. After defining vulnerabilities and strengths, the groups turn to solutions. Some are traditional: bigger culverts, backup generators. Others are nature-based: rainwater retention basins, better tree cover.

At the end of the day, the small groups will reconvene and share their maps and recommendations. There will be commonalities. Whelchel will summarize the results in a report. But the more important result, he says, is that TNC has served as a catalyst for another community to have the conversations that will make it more able to adapt to a changing climate. Like GulfCorps, the Community Resilience Building Workshops see the human community as inseparable from the natural ecosystems that sustain it—and that it sustains.

“Right now,” he says as he stands outside the door of a breakout room, listening to the muffled voices of a group in full brainstorming mode, “they’re practicing resilience.” He sounds pleased.

Ginger Strand is a writer who has written for The Iowa Review, The New England Review and The New York Times, and is a contributing editor for Orion. She lives in the Catskill Mountains.