Researchers reveal add-on benefits of natural defenses against sea-level rise
Environmental investments are paying off for a California county, where projects designed to restore the natural environment also buffer the effects of sea-level rise, according to a new study by Stanford researchers. The research, published on June 9 in npj Urban Sustainability, shows that nature-based solutions, such as preserving wetlands and restoring beaches, can be as effective as concrete seawalls at protecting against sea-level rise and provide additional benefits. Those benefits, such as opportunities for recreation, climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration, and reduction of nutrient pollution, encourage policymakers to prioritize nature-based solutions to sea level rise.
“We are discovering new benefits from decisions already made about conservation or restoration efforts,” said lead author Anne Guerry, chief strategy officer and chief scientist at Stanford University. Natural Capital Project† “Our models show how communities can reap greater benefits if they invest more in nature.”
Guerry co-authored a paper last year showing how traditional approaches to combating sea level rise can create a knock-on effect of environmental and economic impacts on nearby communities. The new research is the result of a collaboration between San Mateo County, the San Francisco Estuary Institute and Stanford’s Natural Capital Project to develop an actionable, science-backed plan to combat sea level rise.
Using input from stakeholder workshops and scientific explorations of the suitability of stretches of coastline for restoring various coastal habitats, the researchers modeled three scenarios for adaptation to sea level rise. The first scenario envisioned the entire shoreline of San Francisco Bay lined with concrete seawalls, a traditional solution for holding back the sea. The second scenario took into account conservation and restoration projects currently underway or at various stages of planning in the province, such as the restoration of salt ponds and the addition of a beach for a levee. The third scenario explored additional viable wildlife-based projects, such as protecting wetlands and restoring native seagrasses and oyster beds along the coastline.
The team used To invest, the Natural Capital Project’s free, open-source software, to model the additional benefits people could gain from the province’s sea-level rise adjustment options. They found that conservation and restoration projects would deliver up to eight times the benefits of traditional solutions, while providing the same level of flood protection. For example, the results showed that the nature-based solutions implemented today would result in six times greater reductions in stormwater pollution than the scenario using traditional concrete seawalls. The third scenario, which proposed additional wildlife-based projects, would lead to eight times greater reductions in stormwater pollution than traditional approaches, a critical benefit in keeping the bay’s waters clean.
The researchers met with residents, community groups and other government agency personnel to jointly develop guiding principles for planning for the province’s sea-level rise adaptation. Among them: Prioritize nature-based actions; use an inclusive, equitable and community-based process to make decisions; and closely monitor the process to reduce vulnerability, risks and impacts.
“As we have engaged with government and other stakeholders, our results will be more helpful to decision-makers across the province,” Guerry said. “Regionally, there is a lot of enthusiasm for nature-based solutions. We hope this work can help build momentum and tailor approaches for places where they will be effective as long-term solutions to sea level rise.”
Anne Guerry is also a senior research associate at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Other co-authors of the paper include Stanford Natural Capital Project researchers Jess Silver, Katherine Wyatt, Katherine Arkema, Perrine Hamel, Robert Griffin and Stacie Wolny; San Francisco Estuary Institute researchers Julie Beagle, Jeremy Lowe and Ellen Plane; and San Mateo County employees Marcus Griswold, Hilary Papendick and Jasneet Sharma.
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Protecting and restoring coastal habitats delivers multiple benefits to urban residents as sea levels rise, npj Urban Sustainability (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s42949-022-00056-y
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