“Going beyond the biological diversity argument, these salt marshes are the foundation of the food web that supports recreational fisheries, commercial fisheries, water purification, flood protection,” says Matt Whitbeck. “These coastal marshes provide some really critical ecosystem services to the human community.” Credit: Steve Droter
Miles Simmons walks through the seaside goldenrod at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. “We’re losing the habitat. There are a lot of marsh species that depend on these ecosystems for their habitat– their entire life cycles are spent in the marsh. Some of them are migratory birds just moving through. But if we lose those habitats we might lose those species as well.” Credit: Steve Droter
“There is a lot of day-to-day management actions. But as the land subsides and sea levels rise, some marshes are going to be able to keep pace but many are likely to succumb. They’re going to slowly drown, they’re going to fragment, they’re going to break apart and convert to open water.” Credit: Steve Droter
“Protecting the wetlands from any future development and restoring them has benefited the local area against storm surge,” says Simmons. The value of Blackwater NWR doesn’t stop there. “Tourism is huge around here. Blackwater NWR brings in a lot of people visiting the refuge for photography, wildlife observation, fishing and hunting. People come from all along the East Coast just to see Blackwater.” Credit: Steve Droter
One of the charismatic species easily seen at Blackwater NWR is the bald eagle. Over 200 individuals were counted in January and Blackwater NWR provides some of the best habitat for them. Their largest public event is the annual Eagle Fest which is held in March, attracting thousands of people that come from all over the mid-Atlantic area. Credit: Steve Droter
“We spent a lot of time thinking about what management actions we can employ that will increase the resiliency of the salt-marsh community to sea-level rise, to storm impacts and how can we do that in a way that really maximizes the benefit to the wildlife that depend on it,” says Whitbeck. Credit: Steve Droter
Blackwater NWR is currently attempting thin-layering sediment restoration. “We’re trying to build up the elevation of the marsh with local dredge material coming out of the river channel. If it’s possible to sustain the marsh for another 50 to 100 years — that will have management implications for us into the future,” says Simmons, pictured with Whitbeck. Credit: Steve Droter
By conducting vegetation surveys in meter plots, Blackwater NWR is able to track the vegetation community and determine the dominant species and grass cover in response to shoreline elevation. Common vegetation includes Spartina alterniflora (saltmarsh cordgrass), Spartina patens (salt marsh hay), and Distichlis spicata (seashore saltgrass).” Credit: Steve Droter
“My favorite wetland plant would be seaside goldenrod. You see it everywhere,” says Simmons. “It’s color in a sea of green. These flecks of yellow add to the landscape and helps create that picturesque scene that we’re so grateful to have.”
Since the refuge’s establishment in 1933, over 5,000 acres of marshland have been lost due to sea-level rise — and this trend is continuing. “A lot of people when they talk about the threats of sea-level rise, it’s very hypothetical and in the future. But it’s very real here. That’s one of the important stories I think Blackwater can tell. I think Blackwater really serves to communicate what the impacts of sea-level rise and subsidence are,” says Whitbeck. Credit: Steve Droter
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.