Wetlands offer a quiet natural beauty filled with shorebirds, other animals, and a variety of plants like mangroves, reeds, and more, but they’re dwindling in number and that’s bad news–not just for the animals and plants that call the wetlands home, but for the human communities beyond those former wetlands that are now more vulnerable to storm damage as a result of their loss.
While the precise value of a particular wetland’s ability to offer storm protection depends on a large number of factors, a study of major storms since 1980 showed that regions with intact wetlands experienced less damage from storm surges caused by hurricanes and superstorms.
Researchers believe that wetlands, especially in combination with barrier islands, beaches, and berms, trap angry waters before they surge inland and damage property, crops, and infrastructure. The bigger a wetland the more protection, as the energy of the storm has time to die out before the water reaches solid ground.
If a wetland is too small, storm surge waters can break it up, tearing right through it to reach settled areas.
Those areas without wetlands have no such protection, allowing storms to ride roughshod over the environment. That’s a big concern given that climatologists are predicting more and more heavy storms into the future and the fact that storms are not just going to increase in number, but in size and intensity, too.
That makes long-term planning for handling storm surges and related matters particularly critical at this juncture as communities are at risk, and it’s important to take steps now to protect those communities before a recurrence of events like those seen as a result of hurricane Sandy on the East Coast.
Thus, some researchers are strongly recommending that wetland restoration play a vital role in environmental planning and our response to climate change.
What happens though when it’s not possible to restore wetlands, as in areas like Galveston where former marshes have sunk below the waves due to rising sea levels?
Then it may be time for a “strategic retreat,” as Kevin Shanley puts it, by changing government policy to focus on protecting shorelines so that we can hold high ground and keep it through the use of marshes as a creative buffer zone.
Also, wetland restoration doesn’t have to mean losing out on human activities on the same land or result in resource conflicts.
Wetlands can become draws for visitors, areas for people to enjoy fishing, boating, and other activities, and hosts for events during the summer. At the same time, they can provide valuable habitats for a variety of species, including endangered or threatened species that are struggling with the loss of the wetlands they rely on for their safety and survival.
By contrast, some communities seem to be doing just the opposite: in New Jersey, post-Sandy development is including numerous proposals for heavy development right along shorelines.
This development is precisely the kind that suffered most during the storm, and it’s exactly what’s not needed when it comes to long-term planning. While it might offer big short-term rewards including substantial funds from tourists and second-homers, it won’t offer protection from major storms and could in fact make storm damage worse.
It’s time for coastal communities to commit to the long haul, so that something will be left for future generations. That means more wetlands, and fewer luxury hotels built right on the water.
Shanley and other advocates warn that without wetland restoration measures in place, we’ll start losing even more ground, even more quickly, and the devastation of major storms will only get worse.
Photo credit: USDA NRCS North Dakota.