Study shows how coastal habitats help provide protection from storms, sea level rise
September 3, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in 2012 Coastal Master Plan, Community Resiliency, Hurricanes, Reports, Restoration Projects, Science

By Alisha Renfro, Coastal Scientist, National Wildlife Federation

Coastal communities throughout the U.S. are increasingly threatened by rising sea levels and extreme weather events. The conventional approach for protecting people and property along the coast has relied on engineering solutions such as levees, seawalls and bulkheads, which “harden” shorelines. However, not only can these structures be expensive to build and difficult to maintain, but in some cases, they can also increase erosion, impair the recreational uses of the area and reduce water quality.

In recent years, efforts to protect coastal communities have been expanded to recognize restoration and conservation of coastal habitats as ways to help buffer coastlines from waves and storm surge. In a study recently published in Nature, “Coastal habitats shield people and property from sea-level rise and storms,” researchers assessed the risk reduction that natural habitats provide to vulnerable people and property and found that loss of the ecosystems that currently exist will result in greater damage to people and property.

Louisiana barrier island. Credit: NOAA.

Different types of coastal habitat and shoreline offer varying levels of protection to coastal communities depending on their morphology and previously observed ability to offer protection from erosion and flooding. For example, in this study, coastal forests and high cliff shorelines were classified as providing a higher level of protection when compared to marsh and oyster reef habitat, with barrier beach shorelines and areas with no habitat offering the lowest level of protection.

To provide a nationwide view of the risk reduction that could be provided by natural coastal habitat, the researchers in this study compiled a coastal habitat map for the U.S. and compared model runs with and without the habitats under present-day and future sea level scenarios. Their modeling results indicated that, today, 16 percent of the U.S. coastline is classified as a “high hazard” area. When the same conditions were modeled without the presence of protective coastal habitats, the results suggested the extent of U.S. coastline that would be considered vulnerable to storms and sea level rise would double.

Compared to the West Coast, the low-relief Gulf and eastern coasts of the U.S. are more vulnerable to both sea level rise and storms. In order to better protect these vulnerable regions, the authors of this study suggested that large expanses of coastal forests and wetlands, oyster and coral reefs, dunes and sea grass beds are critical.

Recently, some coastal protection plans have begun incorporating conservation and restoration of coastal habitat alongside traditional physical structures. Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan is an excellent example of a plan that acknowledges not only the value that coastal habitats have for the fish and wildlife of the area, but it also examines how to combine conservation and restoration of these habitats with traditional engineering strategies to enhance protection for the millions of people that call coastal Louisiana home.

One Response to Study shows how coastal habitats help provide protection from storms, sea level rise

  1. Gary Dingle says:

    I worked 24 year in ocean science, NOAA. I hope people are paying attention to this blog. I absolutely agree with using a natural approach to minimize the effect of increasing sea level. One problem with seawalls and hard barriers is they encourage catastrophic failures. Unfortunately we may not have time to let human induced nature minimize the effect of sea level rise. Natural solutions are better for the long term. We may need a combination of short term solutions along with natural long term solutions. In my opinion we have waited too long to acknowledge the problem. My last vacation to Florida specifically north west coast beaches I was amazed, dumbfounded and shocked to see new construction just hundreds of feet from the water. This is an example of the ignorance and resistance to the reality of global sea level rise.
    This blog is a great tool. I just hope we can save some of the coastal areas. The earth is the only home we have. Earth the life boat of humanity is under attack by the creature that needs it most. We don’t have the capability to completely destroy the earth but we have the ability to make it inhospitable. To me your efforts are a no-brainer. Everyone should be on board. But, short term usually financial interests take precedence. My negative side believes that we are incapable of making these decisions. My positive side says that we will respond because we have no choice. But the reality is choice is subjective

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