Your City’s Best Defense Against Climate Change: Nature

Researchers find that wetlands, coral reefs, and sand dunes are cheaper and more effective at protecting communities than artificial structures.

(Photo: Sam Diephuis/Getty Images)

Oct 22, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

Wetlands, oyster reefs, and sand dunes might not seem tough enough to withstand an onslaught of extreme storms, flooding, and hurricanes. But they’re all effective ways that communities can protect shorelines and people from the growing risks associated with climate change, according to a new report.

“Across the country, communities are woefully unprepared for extreme weather events,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, which released the report. “A solution composed primarily of natural defenses is the best way to prepare.”

For instance, coral reefs can break up waves, and coastal shrub habitats can stop shoreline erosion. Barrier islands that slow down storm surges benefit the environment more than levees or seawalls, the report said.

Take Delaware. Efforts to maintain its coastal wetlands and beach dunes have not only created a storm barrier, but also provided wildlife habitat.

“When a storm comes through and you have healthy wetlands, their ability to absorb the energy and protect these communities is really a sight to be seen,” O’Mara said. “A healthy wetland can hold one acre of water.”

So-called green infrastructure is often less expensive and more efficient than artificial efforts to protect cities from extreme weather, according to the report.

For example, maintaining a levee in San Francisco Bay would cost $12 million over 50 years, but restoring marshland habitat as a natural barrier would cut the price tag in half.

Yet federal and state subsidies encourage development—which brings more people and structures—to high-risk coastal areas, according to the report. And the National Flood Insurance Program makes it easier to obtain money to clean up a catastrophe than prevent it.

Don Ness, the mayor of Duluth, Minnesota, knows that firsthand. Torrential rains overwhelmed the city’s storm drain system in 2012, resulting in flash floods and the worst natural disaster in the city’s history. Yet when Duluth sought funds to update its 1890s-era storm drain system, the city found that state and federal agencies would only pay for it to be restored to its original capacity.

“It’s been extremely difficult for our federal partners to see the importance of that...and build an additional resilience into our green infrastructure,” he said.

The report recommends that federal programs prioritize investments in natural defenses on the country’s coastlines.

Some states have begun to do that. New York passed legislation in September requiring that jurisdictions approve measures that incorporate climate resiliency in their permitting process.

King County in Washington state integrated efforts to lessen flood risk with habitat restoration for endangered chinook salmon and bull trout—a move that increased the project’s value by $1.7 billion, according to the report.

“Investing in natural infrastructure and taking important steps to reduce risks from hurricanes and floods saves communities money and lives,” said Patty Glick, NWF’s senior climate expert and the report’s lead author. “There is a hugely important role for public policy in improving the resilience for our communities.”