Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons are on the front lines of dealing with climate change. Where they work along the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay, scientists say sea levels are rising at rates three to four times faster than the global average. The cause is a combination of rising waters due to global climate change and sinking land, also known as subsidence.
As the supervisory wildlife biologist at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Whitbeck oversees the diverse habitats of Blackwater, Glenn L. Martin, Eastern Neck and Susquehanna National Wildlife Refuges.
While many may see the impacts of climate change as a looming event in the future, Whitbeck disagrees, saying, “It’s very real here.” Sea-level rise has continually shaped the landscape, turning marshes into lakes and forests into marsh grass. At the predicted rate of sea-level rise, nearly all of Blackwater’s marshes could be permanently inundated by 2100.
That could be disastrous for the refuge’s habitats, plant and animal species. Many of the species found here are uniquely adapted to survive in the refuge’s forests, marshes and shallow water habitats. “All the major taxonomic groups have a species or two that has found a way to exist in a saline environment,” says Whitbeck, such as the salt marsh skipper and the Diamondback terrapin.
“In the spirit of maintaining biological diversity, it is important to conserve salt marshes. So strictly from a conservation biology standpoint, a fish and wildlife conservation standpoint – maintaining all the parts is really the first order of business. Ensuring all these species have all the habitat they need to exist is critical,” says Whitbeck.
Yet the community benefits are equally important, especially as the threats of climate change become more evident. Salt marshes provide huge benefits as nurseries for fish, sponges for soaking up flood waters and reducing coastal erosion, and buffers from storm surge and strong waves.
Miles Simmons, a biological technician at the refuge, grew up on the Eastern Shore and has experienced the effects that storms can have on the environment, but also what kinds of effects a healthy marsh can have.
“Marshes – wetlands in particular – are critical in mitigating the effects of large storms,” he says.
When Hurricane Sandy struck the Atlantic coast in 2012, there was a lot of infrastructure that was damaged, but it could’ve been worse – specifically for the communities around Smith Island, located just south of Blackwater.
Having the healthy intact marsh systems of the Glenn L. Martin NWR along the northern part of Smith Island helped to stop shoreline erosion that was taking place on the western and northwestern shorelines. This “really helps maintain that buffer and give the community a small measure of protection,” says Whitbeck.
In June 2016, Whitbeck and team completed construction on a 21,000-foot living shoreline at Martin NWR that will dynamically benefit the surrounding local area and the environment into the future.
Following Hurricane Sandy, efforts to repair and build resiliency around these coastal communities were aided with the help of federal funding from the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013. Refuges and communities all throughout Maryland received over $13,096,841 to put towards recovery and resiliency.
At Blackwater, as the shoreline elevation begins to shift, biological technicians like Simmons are conducting vegetation surveys to monitor the changing landscape. This is some of the first opportunities that Blackwater has had to examine the ecological changes that result from elevated water levels.
By continuing to work on the Chesapeake Bay coastline, Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons are not only ensuring that Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is #StrongAfterSandy, but continue to make it resilient in the face of climate change.
This is the first in a five part series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms as we approach the four year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website.