Chinese Scientists Tour U.S. Sea-Level Rise Work with The Nature Conservancy

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

Three coastal scientists from China recently visited the U.S. to learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s work preparing people and nature along the coasts for rising seas in a warming world.

The scientists from State Key Laboratory of Estuarine and Coastal Research, part of East China Normal University in Shanghai, had worked with The Conservancy before to develop a management plan for Dongtan National Nature Reserve, a 60,000-acre wetland reserve on Chongming Island, the world’s largest alluvial island, situated in the delta of the Yangtze River.

As in many nations, China’s coastal zone is of critical importance. Though it comprises only about 17 percent of the country’s land mass, it is home to 42 percent of the population and 70 percent of the annual gross domestic product.

Traveling to the U.S. in early October, the scientists spent one week in Connecticut, meeting with coastal scientists there, as reported by The Day newspaper, and working to adapt a sea-level rise modeling tool for use in China. The group visited Guilford, Connecticut, and Southhold, New York, two communities using the Conservancy’s online Coastal Resilience mapping tool to better visualize future sea levels and plan for changing shorelines.


During a second week in Louisiana, Conservancy climate scientists and local experts hosted the group on visits to the Conservancy’s oyster restoration site at Grand Isle, where 3.5 miles of reefs bordering 350 acres of marshland have been completed. They toured the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ massive Caernarvon Diversion Project, part of an effort to restore Louisiana’s deteriorating coastal marshes. They also visited parts of New Orleans most affected by flooding from Hurricane Katrina and were shown some of the new engineering programs designed to help protect the city in the future.

The scientists, Zhang Liquan, a professor of landscape ecology, Yuan Lin, a coastal ecologist, and Tian Bo, a geographer and spatial analyst, are part of a national research program evaluating how climate change is affecting 19 major systems in China. The areas they are studying include: coastal wetlands in the Yangtze, Yellow and Pearl River estuaries, mangroves in Guangxi Province in extreme southern China and coral reefs in the Nanhai (South China) Sea around Hainan Province, the second largest island in China.

“We want to put forward mitigation measures and maintain sustainable socioeconomic development in the coastal zone,” Zhang, the group’s lead scientist, told The Day. “It’s a very hard task.”

The exchange of information about their research and perspectives was a valuable experience for all involved.

“They have a lot to learn from us, and we have a tremendous amount to learn from them,” said Jeff DeBlieu, an adaptation specialist with the Conservancy’s climate change team.

Lisa Hayden is a blogger and writer for The Nature Conservancy

Photo by: Jeff DeBlieu/TNC (Chinese coastal ecologist Yuan Lin (left) walks through marshes in Southold, New York, with Adam Starke (right) and Nicole Maher of the Conservancy’s Long Island Chapter)

Inset Photo by: Jeff DeBlieu/TNC (Adam Starke of Long Island Chapter demonstrates the SET instrument, which measures even miniscule changes in “surface elevation” in marshes for Chinese ecologist Yuan Lin)

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Comments (1)

  • Jennifer


    Excellent work, excellent article. Let me write a couple of words on social & legal context

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.


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