October 11, 2013
Of the 25 most densely populated counties in the United States, 23 of them are along the coastline. The study, "Coastal habitats shield people and property from sea-level rise and storms" published in Nature Climate Change, mapped the entire U.S. coastline and reports that habitats such as sea grasses, mangroves, sand dunes, and coral reefs currently protect two-thirds of the U.S. coastline, including at-risk areas such as New York and Florida.
"The natural environment plays a key role in protecting our nation's coasts," said study lead author Katie Arkema, a Woods postdoctoral scholar. "If we lose these defenses, we will either have to have massive investments in engineered defenses or risk greater damage to millions of people and billions in property."
Damage to the town of Mantoloking, New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. Photo in the public domain.
Although attempts at protecting coastal population centers have typically involved hardening shorelines with "gray technologies" such as cement sea walls, there are disadvantages to engineered solutions. Not only are they expensive to build and difficult to maintain, but they can reduce the natural beauty of an area, increase erosion, affect water quality, and deplete the number of marine creatures living in the region. In fact, many "gray" solutions may actually damage natural habitats that are already acting as protection for coastlines.
Conservation and restoration of shoreline marshes, seagrass beds, oyster beds, coral reefs, dunes, coastal forests, and large kelp forests offer natural defense mechanisms for coastlines, buffering them from waves and storm surges. Loss of these habitats would increase the vulnerability of human populations, with the economies of the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico expected to suffer the most damage.
"Hardening our shorelines with sea walls and other costly engineering shouldn't be the default solution," says Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy and co-author of the study. "This study helps us identify those places and opportunities we have to keep nature protecting our coastal communities – and giving us all the other benefits it can provide, such as recreation, fish nurseries, water filtration and erosion control."
Hurricane Sandy alone caused $68 billion in damage to the U.S. Soon, billions more will be spent on restoration of other areas affected by the storm along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. This study provides critical national and localized information for coastal planners who are considering where conservation and restoration efforts could have the biggest impacts.
"As a nation, we should be investing in nature to protect our coastal communities," said Mary Ruckelshaus, managing director of the Natural Capital Project. "The number of people, poor families, elderly and total value of residential property that are most exposed to hazards can be reduced by half if existing coastal habitats remain fully intact."
CITATION: Arkema, K. et al. Coastal habitats shield people and property from sea-level rise and storms. 2013. Nature Climate Change, 3, 913-918.
Natural cooling cycle in Pacific may have slowed global warming...for now
(09/12/2013) Cooling waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean appear to be a major factor in dampening global warming in recent years, scientists said on Wednesday. Their work is a big step forward in helping to solve the greatest puzzle of current climate change research – why global average surface temperatures, while still on an upward trend, have risen more slowly in the past 10 to fifteen years than previously.
Bad feedback: ocean acidification to worsen global warming
(08/28/2013) As if ocean acidification and climate change weren't troubling enough (both of which are caused by still-rising carbon emissions), new research published in Nature finds that ocean acidification will eventually exacerbate global warming, further raising the Earth's temperature.
Whale shark mapping: scientists uncover global distribution for the largest fish in the world
(08/27/2013) Polka-dotted and striped. Massive but docile. That’s the whale shark for you - the largest fish and shark in the world. But despite being major tourist attractions, the lives of these awe-inspiring creatures of the ocean remain far from being demystified. However, a team of researchers from Australia may now have some answers to where these whale sharks (Rhinocodon typus) occur.
Google Earth presents fish-eye view of coral reefs
(08/20/2013) You can now visit up-close and personal some of the world's most imperiled ecosystems on Google Earth: coral reefs. The Google team is working with scientists to provide 360 degree panoramas, similar to Google street-view, to give armchair ecologists a chance to experience the most biodiverse ecosystems under the waves.
Climate change scattering marine species
(08/08/2013) Rising ocean temperatures are rearranging the biological make-up of our oceans, pushing species towards the poles by 7kms every year, as they chase the climates they can survive in, according to new research. The study, conducted by a working group of scientists from 17 different institutions, gathered data from seven different countries and found the warming oceans are causing marine species to alter their breeding, feeding and migration patterns.