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Partners share updates from studies investigating urgent threats that sea level rise poses to coastal marshes

At the second annual Tidal Marsh Resilience Workshop, partners investigating impacts to coastal systems in the wake of Hurricane Sandy met to share findings, and align efforts to deliver results to coastal decision makers.

For scientists investigating system and species responses to climate change, a three-year project goes by in the blink of an eye. But the relationships fostered within a cohort of cooperative three-year projects launched in response to an urgent and ongoing conservation need have the potential to continue well into the future.  

In the first week of December, nearly 60 researchers from universities, non-profit organizations, and state and federal agencies gathered for the second annual Hurricane Sandy Tidal Marsh Resilience workshop at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Regional Office to share information on a suite of research projects funded in the wake of the storm, ranging from site-specific restoration monitoring projects to regional coastal resilience models.

Coordinated by the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), the workshop provided a forum for the partners to share their work, learn from others, provide feedback, and strengthen their connections in advance of a rapidly approaching deadline. With just 11 months remaining in their cooperative agreements, the partners are beginning to focus on leveraging efforts to ensure they produce a meaningful body of work that contributes to coastal resilience long after that deadline.

“We need to be thinking longer term,” said North Atlantic LCC Coastal Resilience Coordinator Megan Tyrrell. “These cooperative agreements may be coming to end, but the threats from climate change are only growing.”

The prospects for saltmarsh sparrow are a compelling case in point: Found only in tidal marshes along the Atlantic coast of the United States, this species relies on habitat within a very narrow geographic area and habitat niche. Sea level rise is reducing the amount of viable nesting habitat within this range by changing tidal flooding regimes. Rising sea levels are causing high marsh vegetation to convert to low marsh vegetation in many places, which is less suitable for sparrow nesting. More frequent tidal inundation from sea level rise and storms increases the likelihood that birds on the nest will drown before their 23 day period of egg laying to fledging is complete.

Department of the Interior Hurricane Sandy funding helped to support additional field seasons for the Saltmarsh and Avian Habitat Research Program (SHARP), a collaborative effort to evaluate threats to tidal-marsh dependent species like saltmarsh sparrow, and to assess the effectiveness of marsh restoration in increasing the persistence of these species in the face of future storms and sea level rise. During the workshop, researchers from SHARP not only shared updates on their progress, but articulated future management actions that will be needed to sustain this species. 

Other project P.I.s presented initial results during the workshop as well, including:

For all of these projects, communicating and translating research to action is the critical next step, and that was a major topic of discussion throughout the workshop, particularly during an afternoon session focusing on science delivery. Representatives from the Northeast Regional Ocean Council (NROC) and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Ocean Council (MARCO) encouraged the partners to take advantage of established networks and systems to make sure information from these projects is accessible, and gets in the hands of to stakeholders who can use to make better decisions to protect tidal marsh species and systems, as well as coastal communities.

Although many partners agreed that communicating about this science and ensuring its proper application would be a major challenge going forward, they also seemed hopeful that the collaborative momentum that had brought them this far would help them continue.

“When I was just getting started in this field, I remember flying over mangrove marshes in St. Petersburg, FL., that were being bulldozed to create Venetian-style canals for a housing development,” said Dr. James Morris, Director of the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences at the University of South Carolina.

“There were no wetland regulations then, and look how far we’ve come,” he said, pointing out that, “People really care about these places.”

Now there is a new threat to these systems: sea level rise. “We can’t stop it, but we can prepare,” said Morris, adding that the workshop gives him hope about the prospects. “This is such a wonderful community.”

At the close of the meeting, North Atlantic LCC Coordinator Andrew Milliken outlined several action items for the group, including to continue to share information and maintain the meaningful relationships that have been established already within this community of practitioners.

“In the face of climate change, we have a critical role in stewarding the tidal marshes and species of the North Atlantic coastline to help ensure their persistence and resilience,” he said. “You are the heart of trying to make that happen.”

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