How to Protect Coastal Wetlands From Climate Change

Sea level rise is not the most immediate threat posed by climate change when compared to out-of-control hurricanes and wildfires, crop loss and ocean acidification. But it’s not exactly a distant danger either.

Towns ranging from Kivalina and similar inhabited islands in Alaska to the Louisiana community of Isle de Jean Charles are set to disappear under the rising ocean in no more than a decade — and perhaps as little as a couple of years.

Isle de Jean Charles, in fact, has already lost 99 percent of its land to encroaching waters. The community also happens to be very connected to its local wetlands, which were the subject of a recent “Nature” publication exploring how coastal wetlands will cope with rising seas.

And the threat of wetland destruction along coastal regions could have more far-reaching effects than even an influx of climate refugees.

Coastal wetlands are critically important ecosystems that provide a number of important ecological functions. For instance, they act as powerful filtering and purifying mechanisms for the water flowing between the oceans and inland regions. Pollutants that would otherwise be released into the ocean are captured in wetlands, as are ocean pollutants heading the other way.

Wetlands are also major carbon sinks, doing a lot of the heavy lifting between equatorial rainforests and the great boreal ring forest of the north, also known as the taiga. The Florida Everglades alone are worth billions, according to economic calculations of their carbon storage role.

Wetlands in coastal regions also provide a buffer zone and transition between ocean and land. Like riparian forests, they stave off erosion and provide a stable border that ultimately protects both environments.

Finally, wetlands are incredibly important for both local species and migratory birds, which means they are connected to nearby ecosystems, as well as habitats hundreds or thousands of miles away.

What happens if waters continue to rise? Coastal areas tend to be more heavily populated, so trapped between the rising ocean on one side, and overdeveloped human communities on the other, the wetlands will slowly drown.

Trees and other plants that thrive in salt marshes can only survive and reproduce when water levels are not overwhelming. When all vegetation dies, the wetlands will cease to be, drastically altering coastlines. The communities we tried to protect will be left facing the ocean without a buffer — and they’ll likely have to be abandoned too.

Is there an alternative? Experts say that wetlands can adapt to higher waters if sea level rise is slow enough — and if they aren’t choked on the inland side by human development. We need to provide appropriate breathing room, relocate farther away from the threatened wetlands and allow a rewilding to occur in the adjacent land. As a result, wetlands will be able to move further inland, while simultaneously retaining more soil and raising the level of the land.

Doing so would also provide long-term protection for communities that rely on wetlands for their critical ecosystem services. Failing to act means losing both human communities and irreplaceable ecological relationships.

Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region/Flickr

64 comments

Lisa M
Lisa M4 months ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa M4 months ago

Thanks.

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hELEN hEARFIELD
hELEN hEARFIELD4 months ago

tyfs

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Clare O
Clare O'Beara4 months ago

to many ads

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Clare O
Clare O'Beara4 months ago

th

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Peggy B
Peggy B4 months ago

TYFS

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Hannah K
Past Member 4 months ago

thank you

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Cindy M. D
Cindy M. D4 months ago

To all the climate change deniers - please WAKE UP!! This is only the beginning... :(

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Marge F
Marge F4 months ago

Thank you for posting this informative article.

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Amanda M
Amanda McConnell4 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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