Researchers at the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University say that the best protection from rising sea levels and storms in the US is a combination of engineering and conservation.
Marine ecologist and lead author of the study, Katie Arkema, says “ . . . the traditional approaches to protecting our shorelines, such as seawalls, levees and coastal buffering, don’t always do a sufficient job.” She and her team addressed the question of the role of coastal habitats in providing protection.
Their first step was to gather data from local, state and national agencies about which coastal habitats might provide protection to coastal areas during extreme weather. The next step was to assess and rank the amount of protection offered by each area.
Then they studied tide gauge measurements from 1992-2006, Global Sea-Level Rise scenarios from NOAA and an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report.
From the above information, the team created a Hazard Index to assess individual communities’ risks based on the effects of habitat type, shoreline type, wind, waves, sea-level rise, storm surge potential and topographic relief.
The results showed that as sea levels rise, natural defenses of coastal forests and shrubs offer significant protection in some areas. Habitat offers less protection in other areas, probably because it can’t keep up with climate change.
Arkema notes that the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico areas are at highest risk from sea-level rise and storms because of their “ . . . low-lying habitats—mud flats and sandy beaches.”
Natural habitat is most protective of populations and property value in Florida, New York and California. In fact, were that protective habitat lost, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts residents would be exposed to higher risk from storm hazards.
Vivien Gornitz of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, applauds the study. She says it’s the first time that the habitat protection aspect of the US shoreline has been studied and demonstrates “ . . . the value of having as much natural habitat or coastline as possible in terms of potential protection against sea-level rise and storm surges.”
Gornitz wasn’t involved in the Stanford study.
SOURCE: Earth Magazine, July 16, 2013 Study published in Nature Climate Change, July 2013