Conserving Coastal Wetlands for Sea Level Rise Adaptation
The Value of Coastal Wetlands for Coping with Sea Level Rise
Coastal wetlands make communities more resilient by providing flood storage, storm surge buffers, erosion control, water quality improvements, and wildlife habitat. Sea level rise is a threat not only to wetlands, but also to the communities these wetlands serve.
Coastal counties generate much of our nation’s gross domestic product and support a large percentage of the population. The ability of coastal communities and ecosystems to adapt to sea level rise is critical to the nation’s long-term security and economic sustainability. The continuing threat of sea level rise, along with additional climate change-related stressors and growing populations, makes protection of coastal wetlands and the services they provide essential.
Using nature to help people cope with the expected impacts of climate change is a strategy known as ecosystem-based adaptation. To implement this strategy, geospatial data and technology can be used to identify wetlands that are vulnerable and those that have the potential to increase a community’s resilience to sea level rise. Armed with this information, communities can prioritize their conservation efforts and spend their conservation capital wisely.
Coastal Wetland Ecosystem Services
Important ecosystem services that coastal wetlands provide include the following:
Flood Storage – Wetlands function as natural sponges that trap and slowly release surface water, rain, snowmelt, groundwater, and flood waters and distribute these waters more slowly over the floodplain, thereby lowering flood heights and dissipating storm surge.
Storm Surge Buffering – Large amounts of wave energy and water from storms that may otherwise do extensive inland damage are absorbed by coastal wetlands. Some research indicates that the height of storm surge can be reduced by one foot for every mile of vegetative wetlands that exists.
Erosion Control – Wetland vegetation stabilizes the shoreline by holding sediments in place with roots, absorbing wave energy, and breaking up the flow of stream or river currents.
Water Quality Maintenance – Wetlands reduce pollution of waterways by storing and filtering urban runoff and removing or retaining nutrients and sediment carried by runoff. Wetlands play a unique and critical function through their ability to recycle these nutrients into usable substances. Wetland functions reduce the costs of constructing, operating, and maintaining drinking water treatment plants.
Fish and Wildlife Habitat – Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on earth and contribute to a diversity of plants and animals. Wetlands provide fish and wildlife with breeding, nesting, and nursery grounds, as well as needed shelter, food, and migration stopovers.