Amid dramatic sea level rise, nature itself can provide a much-needed solution

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Even if we manage to reach our goals for reducing greenhouse gases, the world will experience a dramatic sea level rise by 2100 – the latest study estimates by as much as six feet.

With a water level that much higher than it is today, major coastal cities such as Boston, New York and Miami are sure to be below sea level. So the key question now is, how do we adapt to climate change effects we can no longer avoid?

A single solution to rising oceans won’t fix the problem, but there is a “soft option” that can help protect our coasts when complemented with other measures.

Living shorelines have role to play

Sea level rise means entire regions, not just beachfront towns, will have to adapt.

With coastal areas accounting for 42 percent of America’s economic output, we must make effective climate change and sea level-rise adaptation strategies a priority today.

Soft options, sometimes called living shorelines or natural infrastructure, include features such as sand dunes, barrier islands and maritime forests. They help lessen storm surge and flooding while also providing habitat, water filtration and beautiful places we can all enjoy.

These sand dunes were built to protect homes in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

These and other natural infrastructure measures can be used alone or to complement and enhance hard infrastructure such as levees and floodwalls to create multiple lines of defense.

But natural infrastructure measures also have a distinct advantage over hardened approaches: They can grow.

Beaches, dunes, wetlands, mangroves and oyster reefs can keep pace with sea level rise and provide critical buffers – a first line of defense against waves and floods

Coastal communities taking action

Communities on every coast are now beginning to think about changes in zoning and building standards to protect themselves from flooding, while also investigating how to restore natural defenses. Such redundant measures can improve their resiliency – and also give them environmental and economic benefits that improve quality of life.

Seabrook, New Hampshire, for example, has a plan to build and strengthen its dunes, and allow them to continue to grow, to protect coastal properties.

Louisiana is also restoring its wetlands, cypress swamps and barrier islands as part of its strategy to cope with sea level rise and storm disasters. And across Hampton Roads, Virginia, living shorelines are sprouting up as alternatives to bulkheads to combat erosion and improve Chesapeake Bay water quality.

Such efforts are taking off in other countries, too. Communities in across Southeast Asia, for example, are now replanting mangroves to reduce impacts from tsunamis and storm surges.

Live with water, fight it, or retreat?

Scientists are expecting sea levels to rise faster and higher than previously predicted. So the truth is, we’ll have to soon make choices about where, when and how we adapt to live with water, defend our coasts, and retreat.

Fortunately, restoring coastal ecosystems can fit nicely with these strategies to provide human communities with benefits not only on stormy days, but year-round.

Shannon Cunniff

Shannon Cunniff

Shannon is Director, Coastal Resilience and is leading the development of our natural infrastructure program. Before joining EDF, she addressed sustainability, water resources and floodplain management policy issues as an executive with the U.S. departments of Interior and Defense.

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Comments

Any suggestions for Annapolis, MD? Downtown gets flooded fairly often here, and a rising sea level will present huge problems for this little city on the Chesapeake. Would like to hear some practical ideas.

Highly urbanized areas with an abundance of historic structures will be especially challenged by rising seas. While businesses can install “flood doors” to temporarily hold back waters ready to seep over their doorsteps, this will likely be unacceptable where no other access point exists for customers.

Annapolis could re-conceive parts of its waterfront to “live with water”, as the Dutch say. For example, the city could excavate some paved areas to create swales – low areas of marshy land – into which the flow of high tides can be directed. Because much depends on how much the seas will rise and how fast, solutions such as these that can be adapted to changing conditions will be ideal.