How shorelines can adapt to climate change

| 21st June 2018
Durdle Door, The Jurassic Coast, Dorset

Durdle Door, The Jurassic Coast, Dorset

Climate change has dramatically affected sea level, and as a result, our shorelines. Creating more living shorelines could decrease the effects of climate change by helping underwater plants to thrive, writes EMILY FOLK.

If we can restore the shoreline ecosystems, the growing plants could slow down the effects of climate change.

Climate change is here, no matter what the current US presidential administration has to say on the matter. The planet is hotter than it has ever been before, sea levels are rising and humans, plants and animals are all feeling the heat — and it's all backed by science.

Just look at the 2017 hurricane season — three massive superstorms all within a few weeks of one another that devastated Texas, Florida and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, and much of the island still doesn’t have electricity more than nine months later.

One ecosystem that is facing the biggest change is the thousands of miles of waterfront that lines the oceans and seas of our primarily water-covered world. These shorelines are at risk, but they can also help slow climate change — if humans help them adapt.

Living shorelines

To try to prevent shoreline erosion, we usually resort to things like building up seawalls or jetties and other manmade structures. While these are useful tools to prevent erosion, it doesn't foster the development of a sustainable or growing ecosystem.

Living shorelines can help prevent erosion caused by tides and storms by creating healthy, living ecosystems in these areas. Instead of using concrete, these constructs use things like sand, oyster shells and other natural materials. These prevent the sand from washing away while creating an area where natural flora and fauna can thrive.

Even concrete can be useful in these situations — just not as walls. Concrete barriers designed to allow water and fauna to move through them can help slow wave movement and reduce natural erosion.

Modifying waterways

The work to preserve these living shorelines isn't all on land — it's in the water, as well. Dredging, or using underwater excavators to modify the ocean floor near the shoreline, can remove sediment, reclaim polluted waterways and even increase waterway depth near the shore. It can also reverse natural shoreline erosion by taking the sand and sediment that has washed off the beach and returning it to its natural place.

Dredging isn't the perfect solution to prevent shoreline erosion — there aren't enough dredgers in the world to patrol every beach and shoreline — but it can be a solid tool to correct damage that has already occurred, and to prevent more shoreline damage in the future.

For areas that suffer from eutrophication, or an excess collection of nutrients, dredging can even help restore those shorelines.

That could prevent detrimental red tide or algae blooms that occur when the water temperature rises every year. In areas such as the Gulf of Mexico near the Mississippi River Delta, which is contaminated with runoff from the cities and farms along the river's length, dredging can remove sediment that is collecting pollutants.

Carbon sequestration

A healthy ecosystem is good for more than just preventing shoreline erosion — it could reduce the impact of climate change, thanks to a technique called carbon sequestration.

The plants growing in these living shorelines both help convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and store carbon dioxide during photosynthesis.

If we can restore the shoreline ecosystems, the growing plants could slow down the effects of climate change.

There are 124 living shorelines in North Carolina alone. Those shorelines alone are enough to offset more than 64 metric tons of CO2 every year. That's the equivalent of 7,500 gallons of gasoline burned.

North Carolina has 850 miles that can be converted to living shorelines. Even 10 percent of that is enough to offset the CO2 created by burning over 100,000 gallons of gasoline.

Swimming and tanning

If 85 miles of shoreline is enough to offset that much carbon, imagine what we could do with living shorelines on the 372,000 miles of coastline that exist throughout the world?

Even if we subtract the miles of beaches commercial operations use, it still leaves hundreds of thousands of miles of shoreline we can convert into carbon-absorbing shorelines to help reverse climate change.

We've said it before, but it bears repeating — climate change is real, and it is rapidly worsening. Just look at the weather — states across the US are reporting record highs every week, and hurricanes are getting more intense and dangerous than ever before. These problems are due in part to the massive amount of carbon dioxide we're putting into the atmosphere every single day.

Everyone loves a day at the beach, but we might love it a little bit more if those beaches were reversing climate change. Rising oceans are only one part of climate change, and it will affect both the people and the flora and fauna that live on these changing coasts.

By creating these living shorelines, we can do so much more than just prevent shoreline erosion — we can start to undo all the damage we have done to the environment. Beaches are good for more than just hotels, swimming and tanning. These shorelines can help change the world, one square foot at a time.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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