Tag Archives: climate change

Coastal marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS

Nature as protection for coastal towns in Massachusetts

The Great Marsh is a diverse ecosystem of barrier beaches, dunes, and bodies of water aptly named to recognize its nearly 10,000 acres of salt marshes — making it the largest marsh system north of Long Island, New York. Some of the largest migratory fish runs make their way through these shorelines, and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is a vital stop along the Atlantic Flyway Migratory route for numerous rare birds.

For surrounding towns, the marsh also provides critical protection for people and property.

The Great Marsh borders five Massachusetts coastal towns: Essex, Gloucester, Ipswich, Newbury, and Rowley. This coastal wetland acts as a natural buffer against the sea, and the towns surrounding it are recognizing the value the marsh has for public safety, tourism and revenue.

These towns have come together, joined by scientific experts, nonprofits, and partners, to create a community resiliency planning effort to facilitate strategic meetings as they work to create a long-term plan to mitigate the marsh’s vulnerabilities to flooding, storm surge and sea-level rise.

The Great Marsh

Scientists are looking for answers on how climate change will affect tidal estuaries in the Plum Island Estuary, also known as the Great Marsh.

The need to address these vulnerabilities is becoming increasingly necessary as the predicted threats of climate change begin to shape the coastline. Many coastal residents came face to face with these vulnerabilities in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy made landfall.

“A challenge,” said Taj Schottland of the National Wildlife Federation, “or area of opportunity, is the complex ownership and management [of the] landscape. All of the surrounding towns and partners own or manage land in the Great Marsh.” In order to work on the multiple projects being funded to increase resiliency in the marsh, they “had to reach out and engage stakeholders and investors.”

The integration of community planning alongside risk assessment of predicted increased future climate impacts is setting the Great Marsh community apart by linking ecological resiliency with community resiliency and emphasizing the use of nature as protection.

The Great Marsh, and other communities along the Atlantic Coast, are using nature-based measures to enhance their coastline.

Take, for instance, the challenge of erosion — one of the biggest threats to the local barrier beaches. Sea-level rise and increased storm surges are causing higher tides, leading to salinity problems in the marsh system. The deterioration of barrier beaches also threatens the security of the local community — according to Schottland, many of the neighborhoods that are built along this marsh will become inundated by 2030 if sea levels continue to rise as anticipated.


Salt marsh erosion is affecting communities all along the coast, including in Delaware Bay (pictured) as a result of sea-level rise. Extreme storms and floods are predicted to increase in the Northeast as a result of climate change. (Credit: Katie Conrad/US Fish and Wildlife Service)

A common solution to these sea-level changes would be to install gray infrastructure such as a man-made bulkhead. That could lead to “bad consequences as it degrades over time,” said Schottland. As an alternative, wildlife managers at Great Marsh are using nature-based measures such as beach nourishment and the planting of native vegetation.  By using sustainable solutions and working collaboratively, the entire North Shore community is able to benefit.

The creation of the community resiliency planning effort is only one example of the innovative solutions being brought to the Great Marsh. The restoration and reinforcement of over 325 acres of stable marshland and eelgrass vegetation is nearly complete through the use of beach nourishment and the planting of native plants.

Additional projects include the creation of a hydrodynamic model which will collect data usable by all the surrounding towns and partners to better understand sediments, salinity, and waterflow. Another collaborative effort will result in a risk analysis of the nearly 1,500 hydro-barriers such as dams and bridges in the area.

While many of the goals for restoration and resiliency are expected to be met by June 2017, these nature-based solutions and collaborative efforts will require monitoring and continued commitment from the community.

This strategy of adapting nature-based solutions in coastal resiliency extends outside of the planning done by the task force and has become a tool for innovation in the surrounding towns.

In Essex, one defining asset is the Essex River which leads to the Essex and Ipswich Bay. When the town was faced with having to dredge the river and remove the buildup of silt, the common practice was to dump the silt far offshore.

But Essex town administrator, Brendhan Zubricki — who has been an active part of the community planning effort since its inception — went in search of a nature-based solution. He and the town have been working with the Army Corp of Engineers and Massachusetts Coastal Zoning Management to create a feasibility study on how to reuse the organic material to build up new and current marshes.

As a town, he said that they “are most interested in using the natural environment to mitigate these natural effects [of coastal storms] by not having to build anything except green infrastructure.”

Coastal marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS

Coastal marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS

Red knots battle climate change—on both ends of the Earth

Today we’re sharing a story from Audubon Magazine written by Deborah Cramer, author of The Narrow Edge: A tiny bird, an ancient crab, and an epic journey. The tiny, threatened red knot is an omen for how devastating ocean acidification can be.

The vast, unbroken beach at Bahía Lomas stretches for about 30 miles along the Strait of Magellan in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern end of South America. I’ve stood for hours hoping to see shorebirds in this remote, inhospitable place, where the wind blows at hurricane strength, the trees are forced into a permanent lean, and the ebbing tide disappears beyond the horizon, about four miles away. When it returns, rushing in over the wide mudflat, shorebirds follow, thousands of them, appearing first as puffs of smoke in the distance, then in large flocks, rising and falling in smooth, sinuous curves. They alight on the mud, and I am surrounded by birds.

They are mostly Red Knots, sandpipers that have come to winter on this vast beach. Slightly larger than robins, Red Knots travel some 19,000 miles every year, sometimes flying for six or eight days at a stretch without stopping to rest or feed. Their marathon journey, from one end of the Earth to the other and back again, distinguishes the Red Knot as one of the avian kingdom’s most accomplished fliers. Ornithologists have long recognized the knot as sublime. Alexander Sprunt Jr., preeminent South Carolina ornithologist, writer, ardent conservationist, and, from 1935 to 1973, supervisor of the National Audubon Society’s southern sanctuaries, saw more than his share of charismatic birds, including colorful Carolina Parakeets and fabled Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. To Sprunt and his colleague E. Burnham Chamberlain, writing in the 1949 edition of South Carolina Bird Life, the small, less conspicuous knot nonetheless held a special place, representing “an untrammeled wildness and freedom that is equaled by few and surpassed by none.”

red knots

Red knots at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Delaware Bay hosts the largest concentration of the rufa red knot subspecies during the spring, when knots on their marathon migrations stop to refuel and take advantage of the largest gathering of horseshoe crabs in the world. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Curious about how such small birds can manage such extraordinary journeys, I followed them—from the treacherous shoals along the Magellan Strait, to a crowded resort in Argentina, up along the East Coast of the United States, into the icy Arctic, and then back, along the muddy shores of James Bay, through the dense fog of Quebec’s Mingan Islands, and then into the bay behind my home in Massachusetts. I found them there one autumn day—young birds that a couple of months earlier had walked half a mile, perhaps a mile, from their nests to the sea, and then, inconceivably, begun their first long migration, along a route they’d never traveled, to a destination they’d never seen. The story—of their tenacity and the tenacity of the hundreds of people I met along the way dedicated to providing the birds safe passage—became my 2015 bookThe Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey.


Just as the book was going to press, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rufa Red Knot as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the first U.S. bird listed explicitly because its existence is imperiled by global warming. The knot they describe, Calidris canutus rufa, is one of six subspecies of Red Knots worldwide, distinguished by its Eastern Seaboard migration. Since 2000 the rufa Red Knot’s population has declined by roughly 75 percent at key stopovers. Threats to the bird, according to the USFWS, are likely to put the rufa Red Knot “in danger of extinction in the next few decades.”

One might think a bird that each year flies the length of the globe and back—a bird that finds sustenance and shelter in places as widespread and diverse as the Jersey Shore, the Arctic Circle, and the Magellan Strait—might be immune to the warming planet; might, if one of its homes or stopovers becomes unsuitable, simply find another. It’s more complicated than that.

In 2014 the National Audubon Society’s science team published the results of a seven-year study showing how global warming might affect North America’s bird species in the coming decades. The Audubon Birds and Climate Change Report showed that of 588 North American bird species considered, 314 of them could lose more than half their range by 2080. That means that for these birds, the area with the climate conditions they need to survive will shrink or shift so dramatically that they’ll be left with less (often far less) than half of the suitable range that exists today. It’s an alarming prediction, particularly when there’s no guarantee the birds will find new habitat elsewhere.

red knot

A red knot parent and chicks near Hudson Bay (northeastern Canada). The females generally depart a few days after the eggs hatch, leaving the males to tend the young until they’re old enough to fly. Fortunately, baby Red Knots—as is true with most other sandpipers—can forage for themselves as soon as their down is dry and they can walk, which happens within a few hours of hatching. Credit: Brad Winn, from Audubon website

Shorebirds spend their lives at the delicate places where sea meets land—one of the front lines of climate change—and are therefore particularly vulnerable. In 2014 scientists led by Michael Reed from Tufts University and Hector Galbraith, then at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, reported that global warming exacerbates the risk of extinction for nearly 90 percent of North American shorebirds. The team evaluated threats the birds may face in a warming world, including a shrinking tundra; rising seas; ocean acidification; increasingly stormy weather; and dependence on specialized environments, such as Delaware Bay. In their analysis, even at its lowest sensitivity, 20 populations of North American shorebirds, including the Red Knot, would fall into the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan’s highest-risk category—“highly imperiled.” As their world heats up, Red Knots are threatened almost everywhere along their flyway: The warming, acidic sea inhibits the growth of the shellfish the birds need to fuel their impressive migration; rising seas may flood their seaside homes; rising temperatures threaten to shrink their Arctic nesting grounds and expose them to more predators. No matter where they go, no matter how many new homes they might seek, Red Knots can’t escape the effects of global warming.

To power their long migrations, these tiny birds require phenomenal quantities of energy-rich food. Along the route, they gorge on tiny mussels and clams, horseshoe crab eggs, and sea worms, packing in energy for the flights ahead, burning it off on the wing, and then refueling again at the next stop. In Delaware Bay they nearly double their weight—a metabolic feat that would likely make any human attempting it seriously ill but that crowns knots as powerhouse long-distance fliers and one of the animal kingdom’s most rapid and efficient energy consumers. Ocean acidification, a largely invisible consequence of global warming, may soon compromise the quality of Red Knots’ food, if it hasn’t already.

Tagging red knots on Cape Cod. The yellow tag is a geo-locator; the lime green alphanumeric flag means it was banded in the U.S. Credit: USFWS

Tagging red knots on Cape Cod. The yellow tag is a geo-locator; the lime green alphanumeric flag means it was banded in the U.S. Credit: USFWS

As carbon dioxide emissions rise, the pH of seawater drops, and it becomes less saturated with aragonite, a mineral clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops require for building strong shells. In increasingly acidic seawater, these animals’ shells are smaller, thinner, and weaker, and their larvae grow more slowly, with fewer surviving to settle on the sea bottom. Mussels are unable to cling to their homes on rocky tidal flats. In a 2012 symposium, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, and the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research concluded with “high confidence” that mollusks are “one of the groups most sensitive to ocean acidification.” Ocean acidity is increasing rapidly—more than 10 times faster than at any time in the past 55 million years, and possibly at a rate unprecedented in the past 300 million years. Red Knots weren’t around then; they don’t benefit from an evolutionary history of adapting to such rapid changes in ocean chemistry and the problems it brings to the shellfish that, in most places along the flyway, are their primary source of food.

Finish reading Deborah’s story on Audubon’s website. 

Saving the Horseshoe Crabs for the Birds

Sometime in mid-May, Beth Freiday hopes to see New Jersey’s bayside beaches turn a dusky olive color.

“At the peak of horseshoe crab spawning season, the beaches are almost green from the quantity of eggs and crabs covering the sand,” explains Freiday, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist based in New Jersey.

While green beaches are an interesting sight in their own right, it’s what they signify that Freiday cares about – an abundance of crab eggs for migratory shorebirds like the threatened rufa red knot to feast on during their stopover in the Delaware Bay.

The beaches along Delaware Bay are some of the most critically important stopover sites for migratory shorebirds, many of which are undergoing alarming declines. Without a jumbo snack of horseshoe crab eggs, these birds might not make it on their long-distance migration.

To help, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working at numerous sites along the Delaware Bay to restore beaches and improve conditions for spawning horseshoe crabs, thereby helping support migratory shorebirds.

Horseshoe crabs spawning in Delaware Photo credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Horseshoe crabs spawning in Delaware Photo credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Fortifying Beaches

At one such site, Freiday is coordinating a partnership with the American Littoral Society and others to restore a 1.5-mile stretch of New Jersey shoreline severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. These beaches saw a loss of 2 to 3 feet of sand, with the sand pushed so far above the high tide line that spawning crabs could no longer reach it.

To remedy this, the partners are trucking in sand from a local sand mine and moving it onto the beach with a bulldozer, using lightweight pieces of equipment to spread it. Work started at the end of March at Cooks and Kimbles Beaches in Cape May County and is expected to last until mid-April.

All told, approximately 12,000 cubic yards of sand will be spread across the two beaches, which together span 5.5 acres.

“We’re very careful of ecological and historical resources at the sites,” says Freiday, noting that the most environmentally appropriate methods are used for replacing the sand.

While Hurricane Sandy initially wiped out these beaches, Freiday says the problem is persistent.

“Since Sandy, we have had some destructive winter storms that move sand from the beach into the adjacent marsh,” she explains. “This leaves not enough sand on the beach for crabs to spawn, and the sand that is moved into the marsh is no longer accessible for crab spawning.”

It might be something to get used to with a changing climate. The mid-Atlantic Coast is expected to experience some of the fastest rates of sea-level rise in the United States, with more intense storms like Hurricane Sandy battering coastlines.

Restoring Cooks Beach in New Jersey Photo credit: Elizabeth Freiday

Restoring Cooks Beach in New Jersey Photo credit: Elizabeth Freiday

Connecting the Dots

Horseshoe crabs are not endangered, though they are under harvest restrictions in New Jersey and Delaware. They experienced a rapid decline from overharvesting in the 1990s. Then came Hurricane Sandy, which demolished 70 percent of New Jersey’s key horseshoe crab habitat.

Since horseshoe crabs don’t start breeding until at least 9 years of age, population increases might not be noticeable for a while. But the good news is they produce upwards of 100,000 eggs in a season – as long as they have access to the sand habitat they need.

Freiday’s team is planning to have all the sand spread and ready for spawning horseshoe crabs by April 15.

“We don’t know exactly when the horseshoe crabs will come up onto the beaches to lay eggs – it all depends on water temperature,” explains Freiday. “We usually estimate May 1, but this year the water is warmer so it could be sooner. We want to be ready.”

After the horseshoe crabs come in to lay eggs, the migratory shore birds will show up – hopefully by the thousands. And the tourists soon follow.

Ultimately, restoring these beaches will not just benefit horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds, but also the people who live, work and recreate here. Benefits to people include greater protection from storm surges, improved beach areas for public recreation, and the economic benefits of beach and wildlife-related ecotourism, valued at $522 million in New Jersey’s Cape May County alone.

Endangered rufa red knot at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Endangered rufa red knot at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Horseshoe crab eggs provide a vital food source for rufa red knot and other shorebirds Photo credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Horseshoe crab eggs provide a vital food source for rufa red knot and other shorebirds Photo credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

This restoration work is being funded by the Department of the Interior through the Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2013. Partners include the Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Littoral Society, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers. Additional work has been coordinated with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation NFWF and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.