Post-Sandy: Natural Habitats Vital to Protecting Coasts

Recent research points to the critical value of natural habitats in protecting people from devastation by coastal storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Superstorm Sandy's Aftermath - How Nature Can Protect Us

Follow students from our LEAF program as they restore coasts and see how nature can protect us from future superstorms.


Coastal Restoration and Superstorm Sandy

See how the South Cape May Meadows helped protect homeowners from Superstorm Sandy.


CLICK HERE to view an infographic showing the value of nature in New Jersey.

The Nature Conservancy in New Jersey is working to promote the use of nature-based solutions like healthy marshes, beaches and dunes, oyster reefs and floodplains, along with traditional man-made infrastructure, in our state to reduce flooding risks and other storm hazards for coastal communities. To make the strongest case possible, we are working to quantify the economic, ecological and social benefits of New Jersey’s coastal habitats through several projects.

With support from the New Jersey Recovery Fund, the Chapter is involved in the following studies:

South Cape May Meadows Preserve
The Conservancy’s restored South Cape May Meadows preserve served as a model for the protective role of nature during Superstorm Sandy, significantly reducing flooding and storm surge. In this study, Chapter scientists analyzed the economic and social benefits of the preserve’s ecological restoration, in conjunction with the Cape May Point State Park, and their role in reducing flooding during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy and in supporting ecotourism in the area. The results of our recent analysis show that the economic benefits resulting from the project are substantial.

New Jersey’s Marshes
In this study, Conservancy scientists measured how the marshes on the mainland side of the Barnegat Bay affected the flooding experienced by communities during Superstorm Sandy. They wanted to determine if homes and businesses located near marshes were less likely to be inundated or damaged during the storm. While continued research is needed, the initial results show that those structures protected by a marsh were significantly less likely to be impacted during Superstorm Sandy.

Beaches and Dunes
In partnership with Western Carolina University, The Conservancy evaluates how Jersey Shore areas with nourished beaches and dunes fared during Hurricane Sandy compared to those without them, and quantify how effective key seawalls were in protecting shore communities.

Oysters in Gandy’s Beach
With funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New Jersey chapter will be testing the effectiveness of oyster reefs as breakwaters to reduce wave energy and erosion of the marshes at the Conservancy’s Gandy’s Beach Preserve. The reefs will protect the coastal habitats around Gandy’s Beach and Money Island, which in turn protect homes, businesses and roads in the area. It will also provide habitat for oyster larvae, and serve as nursery habitat for commercially and recreationally important fish.

Additional research also points to the critical value of natural habitats in protecting U.S. residents and their property from devastation by coastal storms like Hurricane Sandy. A recent study by the Natural Capital Project, co-authored by The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva and Stanford University’s Katie Arkema offers the first comprehensive map for the entire U.S. coastline of where and how much protection we get from these habitats — from sand dunes to oyster and coral reefs to sea grasses and mangroves.

Key findings from the study:

  • About 16% of the immediate U.S. coastline (within one kilometer of the shore) is classified as in “high hazard” areas—home to 1.3 million people and $300 billion in residential property;
  • Sea level rise will increase the amount of highly threatened people and property by 30-60% by the year 2100;
  • Florida, New York and California are the states where coastal habitats defend the greatest number of people (including the elderly and the poor) and the greatest amount in property values from storm risk.
  • 67% of the U.S. coastline is protected by natural habitat — which, if lost, would double the number of poor families, elderly people and total property value in the areas at highest risk from coastal hazards such as storm surges.

Kareiva says, “Hardening our shorelines with sea walls and other costly engineering shouldn’t be the default solution. This study helps us identify those places and opportunities we have to keep nature protecting our coastal communities.”

The Natural Capital Project also conducted a New Jersey-specific study that developed a coastal-hazard index for the New Jersey coastline based on different sea-level rise scenarios. The study shows where coastal habitats play the greatest role in reducing exposure of shorelines to sea level rise, and identifies the most vulnerable people and property along New Jersey’s coast. The study results help show where conservation and restoration of coastal habitats can provide the greatest protective value for New Jersey. For instance,

  • The greatest number of people living in high hazard areas are in Monmouth county, with nearly 125,000 living within a half-mile of the waters edge, followed by Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties.
  • Habitats have the potential to reduce risk to the greatest number of people in Atlantic County, followed closely by Cape Map and Ocean counties.
  • Without the risk reduction benefits provided by habitats, the number of people currently along high hazard coastlines would triple, and the numbers of people in high hazard areas with future sea level rise would increase by 30-50%