Study: Coastal Habitat Remains the Best Defense
Adding scientific weight and a remarkable granular specificity, a new study confirms what coastal conservationists have known all along — natural coastal habitats are critical to saving lives and preserving coastal properties in an era of rising seas and stronger storms.
The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, says quite directly in the abstract, “The likelihood and magnitude of losses may be reduced by intact reefs and coastal vegetation, especially when those habitats fringe vulnerable communities and infrastructure.” According to the study, “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. ”
In a remarkable feat, investigators looked at every 1-km strip of coastline for nine habitats — including coral and oyster reefs, wetlands, dunes, seagrass beds and kelp forests — to evaluate coastal protection along the entire U.S. coast. Similarly, they evaluated the relative hazards at each location, noting populations and properties at risk. The result is the first-ever nationwide mapping of coastal habitat and coastal risk.
The researchers found that 16% of U.S. coastlines are at high risk, and that without protection for coastline habitat, that number could double. With 23 of the most densely populated 25 counties in the U.S. along the coast, coastal protection is obviously important, but engineered protections are very expensive to implement. This study shows that less expensive natural options could help.
Current protections, however, won’t be enough. Sea level rise will inundate many existing dunes, marshes, forests and other lowland protections, leaving less buffer between sea waters and vulnerable properties. These are habitats that are currently providing enormous benefits — for free — and it will be a wise investment to keep them for the future resilience of our coasts.