Tag Archives: sea level rise

Chafee NWR salt marsh restoration USFWS

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Jen White

(Click on an image above to launch the photo slideshow.)

Protecting coastal resources – for the people and wildlife that depend on them – has to be a priority when you’re a state with 400 miles of coastline and one of the highest ratios of coastline-to-land in the country.

In Rhode Island, one such effort involves restoring coastal marshes.

“Having a marsh is good because it can slow down waves that would be heading toward homes,” says Jen White, a USFWS biologist in Rhode Island. “If we lose the marsh, that will all turn into open water basically and you won’t have any protection.”

White is looking out at the Narrow River estuary, where FWS and partners are working on a marsh restoration technique called “thin-layer deposition,” which has been used widely in Gulf Coast states but is just recently gaining traction in the Northeast. Last year the partners used the technique on 11 acres at Sachuest Point NWR, and now are working on 30 acres along the Narrow River at Chafee NWR.

The objective is to dredge sediment from the estuary and spray it onto the marsh, raising the elevation of the marsh enough to allow it to keep better pace with sea-level rise.

“What we’ve seen here is a switch from high-marsh grasses to low-marsh grasses, so we’re losing the high-marsh habitat in this area,” says White. “By adding material we’re hoping to bring it back to high-marsh elevation and that will hopefully allow it to last into the future.”

The partners are aiming to add six inches of elevation to the marsh, which should allow the high-marsh grass to grow through. They will also re-plant the area with about 35,000 plugs of marsh grasses in the spring.

To achieve this delicate balance of elevation, the dredging and spraying machines are equipped with computer sensors that precisely monitor the process.

“The sand will be contoured so there will be hills and valleys — the hills will be where the high marsh will grow and where water will be able to drain off the marsh so we’re not creating any impounded water anywhere,” explains White.

Marshes are widely considered valuable assets for coastal protection – they buffer wave energy and absorb water. But they also harbor an amazing diversity of species. One important creature that depends on them is the saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus).

“Saltmarsh sparrows breed in the high-marsh elevation grasses, so that’s informed the restoration planning we’re doing. Willets (Tringa semipalmata) also breed at that elevation,” says White. “Sea-level rise is going to be a big issue for the saltmarsh sparrow. As sea-level rise increases, these birds will have fewer and fewer breeding opportunities. By raising the marsh we hope to provide salt marsh nesting species habitat into the future.”

White notes that researchers (Field et al. 2016) estimate the sparrow may go extinct as early as 2035, with populations having dropped sharply since the 1990s according to the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program (SHARP), a group of academic, government and nonprofit researchers along the East Coast.

“Sea-level rise is really the main issue for marshes, whether you’re talking about the habitat they provide for the saltmarsh sparrow or their ability to protect coastal communities from inundation.”

This is the fifth in a series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In previous weeks we have looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons, combating climate change in the Chesapeake BayJulie Devers, assessing fish barriers and culverts in Maryland,  Kevin Holcomb and Amy Ferguson building living shorelines at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and Eric Schrading and Katie Conrad building living shoreline oyster reefs at Gandy’s Beach in New Jersey.

When coming up with habitat management solutions, it is vital to think of a holistic approach. Credit: Steve Droter

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons

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. 

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