Nature Can Protect Us From Storms and Floods

Written by Frank Lowenstein on . Posted in Uncategorized


The roads of South Florida stretch in across a seemingly endless flat and watery landscape. There are no hills, but countless drainage ditches and culverts, trying mightily to carry the abundant rain to the sea.

It’s the perfect place to read Juliet Eilperin’s Washington Post story today on how sea level rise and climate change-driven increases in storm intensity threaten the roads to the oil port of Port Fourchon. It could have been written about Cape Coral, Miami Beach, Key West, or any of a dozen other Florida cities.

Indeed, as The New York Times reported last week, all along America’s coasts sea level rise and storm surge threaten roads, ports and other coastal infrastructure. Eilperin highlights the financial challenge facing the state of Louisiana in dealing with one road to one economically crucial town. But that same challenge is coming to a theater near you, and it’s not a movie you want to see.

I’m in Florida this week, taking a closer look at some of our work down here, and one thing is obvious: there are many challenges.

Sea level rise makes coastal storms more damaging, by enabling the storm surge – essentially a bulge of water pushed toward land by approaching big storms – to reach farther inland. Most of the economic damage from coastal storms is caused by the storm surge, which can tear down homes and rip up roads better than any bulldozer.

Then there’s the state’s mighty plumbing system. Florida is nearly level and it rains a lot. To cope with this, the state is crisscrossed with drainage ditches and canals. Every housing development, office park and shopping mall has its own set of pipes and culverts. The system is designed to take advantage of the limited slope available to move the water out. As sea level rises, the available slope between the land and the sea decreases. The system will start to back up like a clogged … ummm let’s not go there.

Oh, and speaking of unspeakables, the sewage systems of many of our major coastal cities also rely on that slope to the sea. So the problems facing Florida will be replicated across other low-lying areas with impacts on health, water quality and the economy. And many of our biggest cities (like New York and Washington), most iconic landscapes (like Cape Cod and the Everglades) and economically crucial facilities are at risk.

Here’s the thing:  this doesn’t have to be our fate.  This future is not pre-ordained – not if we act now.  We have a moment of opportunity to get this right – to keep people safe in a way that will cost less than the alternative.

But, we must stop arguing about root cause and start planning smart responses now about how to reconstruct our infrastructure, not just in Louisiana but in a thousand, or ten thousand or maybe more places around the entire nation.

There are decisions we can make today that can prevent the worst consequences of climate change from occurring.  In many places, we can bolster our natural defenses — marshes, oyster reefs and coastal dunes — that help protect us from rising seas.

These natural “green solutions” like floodplain restoration that can save us money and prove far more flexible than more rigid and costly “grey solutions,” while helping us to respond to changes we’re seeing. In fact, The Nature Conservancy just published new research on this subject.

In the waters of Charlotte Harbor, Florida, for example, we are looking at natural options like restoring oyster reefs near the shoreline to help reduce the amount of storm surge moving on shore and damage to roads, buildings and homes.

The “grey infrastructure solutions” include either putting in place sea walls along the length of the shoreline or considering sea gates. Venice, Italy is just completing a sea gate project that is carrying a 7 billion Euro price tag. Meanwhile, Conservancy scientists estimate that you can protect about 500 miles of the Gulf coast with oyster reef and salt marsh restoration for roughly $1 billion.

The reality is, we’ll need both green and grey solutions. But, right now, most planners don’t think beyond the grey stuff. We are working to help society’s engineers recognize and add to their toolbox the power of natural infrastructure in responding to and preparing for change.

Frank Lowenstein is Climate Adaptation Strategy Leader for The Nature Conservancy.

Photo by: Flickr user S. F. Pitman (used under a Creative Commons license)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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