The science behind a stronger coast

A worst-case scenario. That’s how the National Weather Service described the timing of Hurricane Sandy’s track toward the stretch of coastline from New Jersey north to Connecticut.

It was close to high tide when the storm came ashore near Atlantic City, bearing down with sustained winds of 75 miles per hour that extended 175 miles beyond the eye — about the distance from Manhattan to Providence, Rhode Island. There were 32-foot waves in New York harbor, and a storm surge of nearly 14 feet in Battery Park. Homes were destroyed; roads were flooded; the power was out.

When Hurricane Sandy hit Rhode Island in October 2012, it breached the beach at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge for the first time in 10 years. Credit: Greg Thompson, USFWS

It’s hard to imagine how it could have been worse, but in the wake of the storm, we had a unique opportunity to figure out how it could have been better. With support from Department of Interior funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects, dozens of scientists were put on the case investigating the storm’s effects across the entire Northeast. The hope was that by connecting the dots between impacts and responses of different systems, species, and habitats, we could help communities understand how to strengthen their natural defenses against natural disasters.

Five years later, the research and restoration projects that were launched by the record-breaking storm are producing some astonishing figures of their own:

  • 10,000 coastal sites evaluated for their ability to migrate in response to rising sea levels.
  • 31,164 road-stream crossings assessed for their vulnerability to flooding during intense rainfall.
  • Millions of cubic yards of sand dredged from channels to restore tidal flow to historic salt marshes.

The stats are impressive, but they just scratch the surface of a meaningful body of work comprising reports, partnerships, models, decision-support tools, and more, developed to help us prepare for the worst, and hope for the best, as we face future storms.

Here is a snapshot of the scientific resources made possible by funding from Hurricane Sandy that are now available to support our collective efforts to build a stronger coast for people and wildlife.

Aquatic systems – Connecting partners to connect rivers and streams


Flooding in Norton, Massachusetts, after heavy rains washed out an undersized culvert on a tributary to the Taunton River. Credit: Mass Audubon

The problem: Tens of thousands of outdated, damaged, and poorly designed road-stream crossings fragment rivers and streams across the North Atlantic region, creating flooding risks for communities during intense rain events and preventing aquatic species from moving up and downstream.

The response after Sandy: The North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative (NAACC) — a network of partners in 13 states working to improve road-stream crossings — provides a central database of road-stream crossing infrastructure, protocols, and trainings for assessments, and web-based tools for prioritizing upgrades. Since the launch of the NAACC in 2015, more than 30,000 road-stream crossings have been assessed for vulnerability to flooding using standard regional protocols.

In action: Partners in a low-lying coastal watershed in Massachusetts, where communities face increasing risk of flooding from sea-level rise, used data from the NAACC to develop strategic guidance for upgrading bridges and culverts to prevent road washouts during intense rain events. Designed with municipal officials in mind, the report co-authored by Mass Audubon and the Taunton River Watershed Alliance identifies priority road-stream crossings in the watershed based on the potential ecological gains and associated public safety benefits that would result from upgrades.

In words: “There are all kinds of reasons to look at road-stream crossings. We want to convey that functioning natural systems provide quality of life and economic value, protect infrastructure, and protect property. More than just documenting road-stream crossings, we wanted to be able to move toward setting priorities and getting work done.” — Heidi Ricci, Senior Policy Analyst, Mass Audubon

Learn more: New report will help towns prioritize road-stream crossing upgrades in coastal watershed

Beaches – The sands of time


Structures along the coast in Atlantic City, New Jersey, alter the natural dynamics of the beach. Credit: Google Earth

The problem: Sandy beaches and dunes provide important habitat for wildlife and economic benefits to communities, but they are dynamic systems by nature, constantly changing in response to wind and wave action. Actions that “harden” beach habitat, such as building seawalls, create weaknesses in these systems by interfering with natural processes, which can worsen impacts during storms.

The response after Sandy: Using imagery from Google Earth, Google Maps, state agencies, municipalities, and private organizations from three distinct periods — before Hurricane Sandy, immediately after Hurricane Sandy, and three years after post-storm recovery efforts — coastal geologist Tracy Rice documented modifications along 1,650 miles of sandy coastline. This inventory gives managers a baseline for understanding how artificial changes to beaches and inlets affects their resilience to storms and their sustainability over time.

In action: Using the inventory, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s lead biologist for the recovery of the threatened red knot discovered that a site at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey is one of only two unmodified inlets in a 350-mile span of shoreline. Equipped with new insight about the importance of this habitat, staff can act strategically to protect an area that is not only of high value to at-risk species, but also regionally rare.

In words: “We knew these species favor these kinds of inlet sites, and we knew most of them were altered, but we didn’t know it was all but two. The data provided a landscape perspective that enabled us to say Little Egg Inlet is unique.” — Wendy Walsh, Shorebird Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Learn more: Bird’s-eye view reveals priority habitat for threatened shorebirds

Tidal marshes – The places they’ll go


Partners are targeting outreach opportunities to communities and landowners in the path of migrating marshes. Credit: USFWS

The problem: Tidal marshes across the region are threatened by changes from development, ditching, invasive species, and rising sea levels that undermine the irreplaceable benefits they provide to communities, such as protection from storm surge and nurseries for commercially important fish species. But the approaches, tools, and challenges to protecting these systems vary by state and scale.

The response after Sandy: The Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) developed a report that offers a comprehensive look at wetland prioritization activities and tools — from vulnerability mapping to policies that support living shorelines — in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, giving managers a sense of best practices and appropriate strategies for increasing marsh resilience in the places they work.

In action: With guidance from ELI and MARCO, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources developed outreach strategies to help direct support and funding to efforts that will minimize impacts on coastal communities and agricultural producers in the path of marsh migration.  By knowing what kinds of resources are available for properties in the transition zones between current and future marsh, Delaware was able to share relevant planning tools and funding mechanisms with agricultural landowners and municipal officials.

In words: “It’s not just about telling people what’s going to happen in the future, but about providing guidance to landowners on how they can plan for it today. We are trying to explain that things are going to change, and it’s better to think and plan now than to have to react later.” — Mark Biddle, Environmental Scientist, Delaware Department of Natural Resources

Learn more: Partners identify resources for landowners in the path of marsh migration

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