How to Protect Coastal Wetlands From Climate Change

Sea level rise is not the most immediate threatposed by climate changewhen compared toout-of-control hurricanes and wildfires, crop loss and ocean acidification. But it’s not exactly a distantdanger either.

Towns ranging from Kivalina and similar inhabited islands in Alaska to the Louisiana community ofIsle 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 communityalso happens to beveryconnected toits local wetlands, which were the subject of a recent“Nature” publicationexploring 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 ofclimate 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. TheFlorida Everglades alone are worth billions, according to economic calculations of theircarbon 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 ashabitats 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 thatthrivein salt marshes can only survive and reproduce when water levels are not overwhelming. When all vegetation dies, the wetlands will cease to be,drastically alteringcoastlines. The communities we tried to protect will be left facing the ocean without a buffer — andthey’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 tomove further inland, while simultaneouslyretaining more soiland raising the level of the land.

Doing so would also provide long-term protection for communities that rely on wetlands fortheircriticalecosystem services.Failing to act means losingboth human communities and irreplaceable ecological relationships.

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

57 comments

Cindy M. D
Cindy M. D2 days ago

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

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Marge F
Marge F3 days ago

Thank you for posting this informative article.

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Amanda M
Amanda M3 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda M3 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda M3 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Janis K
Janis K3 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Veronica Danie
Veronica Danie3 days ago

Thank you so very much.

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Veronica Danie
Veronica Danie3 days ago

Thank you so very much.

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Veronica Danie
Veronica Danie3 days ago

Thank you so very much.

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Kathy G
Kathy G3 days ago

Thank you

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