Virginia Eastern Shore

Introduction

On Virginia’s Eastern Shore—a narrow peninsula that separates the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean—lies the longest coastal wilderness remaining on the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard. Some 60 miles of undeveloped barrier islands are a refuge for hundreds of species of plant and animal life and a mecca for migratory songbirds, raptors, and shorebirds. This iconic wilderness has come to define the local culture and economy. Visitors are greeted with signs proclaiming: “You’ll Love Our Nature.”

It follows that the natural riches of the Virginia’s Eastern Shore make it an important economic engine for the Mid-Atlantic region.

A typical tidal creek on the Atlantic side of the Eastern Shore where clam aquaculture beds thrive alongside agriculture. Photo © 2015 Gordon Campbell / At Altitude Gallery

A typical tidal creek on the Atlantic side of the Eastern Shore where clam aquaculture beds thrive alongside agriculture. Photo Credit: 2015 Gordon Campbell / At Altitude Gallery

Fishermen, duck hunters, birders, kayakers, and beachcombers flock to its idyllic shores.  The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge  located on Assateague Island is visited by 1.2-1.4 million tourists annually, making it one of the most heavily visited refuges in the USgenerating millions of US dollars in spending and creates thousands of jobs for residents living in the Town of Chincoteague and surrounding villages.  Because of the clean water in the tidal creeks and bays, the Virginia Eastern Shore is home to the U.S’s largest clam aquaculture industry with an average annual economic impact of $60 million USD. The rural coastal landscape is the ideal location for one of NASA’s premier rocket launch facilities, Wallops Flight Facility, with over $1 billion of mission-critical infrastructure located on Wallops Island, the only developed barrier island on the Virginia coast.  Moreover, the Eastern Shore hosts one of the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program sites, the Virginia Coast Reserve, operated by the University of Virginia, which has transformed the region into a center for world-class coastal science research for nearly 30 years.

Kayakers enjoying the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge — Cape Charles, Va Photo credit: Peter Frank Edwards

Kayakers enjoying the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge — Cape Charles, Va Photo credit: Peter Frank Edwards

The region’s way of life and economy relies on the peoples’ dependence on nature as a defense in the face of rising seas and extreme storms.  The Eastern Shore lies within one of the U.S’s most vulnerable coastal regions. Sea levels are rising at three to four times the global average and storms are intensifying. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent in the past on piecemeal, reactive approaches to these mounting hazards.  Often, engineered infrastructure solutions such as sea walls, groins and jetties have only exacerbated the area’s vulnerability.

The Nature Conservancy is working with leading coastal scientists and community partners to explore and document the resilience inherent in this natural system. We are using this living laboratory to better understand how nature can make coastal communities here—and everywhere—more resilient in the face of a changing climate.  This information is being incorporated into the Coastal Resilience decision support tool, providing local governments with the information they need to better plan for the future.

Please email us at vacoastalresilience@tnc.org with questions and feedback.

Sunset on Hog Island, Virginia. Photo © 2015 Gordon Campbell / At Altitude Gallery

Sunset on Hog Island, Virginia. Photo © 2015 Gordon Campbell / At Altitude Gallery

LAUNCH the NEW Virginia Eastern Shore Mapping and Decision Support Tool

Coastal Resilience for Eastern Shore of Virginia: Screen Shot of the storm surge model in the Flood & Sea Level Rise app.

Coastal Resilience for Eastern Shore of Virginia: Screen Shot of the storm surge model in the Flood & Sea Level Rise app.

Climate change within this vast expanse of local communities living within this naturally functioning barrier island ecosystem is expected to drive a combination of extreme weather and sea-level rise that will increase the risk of coastal erosion, flooding, and the permanent inundation of what is now normally dry land. Current projections from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Center for Coastal Resource Management regarding relative sea-level rise rates on Virginia’s Eastern Shore show a mean sea level rise of between 4.5 to 7 feet by 2100 which is three to four times the global average.

Rising sea level and eroding shoreline in Greenbackville, Virginia. Photo © Gwynn Crichton

Rising sea level and eroding shoreline in Greenbackville, Virginia. Photo Credit: Gwynn Crichton/The Nature Conservancy

On the Eastern Shore, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on traditional “gray” infrastructure approaches, such as sea walls, groins, jetties, bulkheads and revetments, as defenses against mounting coastal hazards. Often, the gray infrastructure has only exacerbated the area’s vulnerability and undermined the region’s abundant natural resilience by interrupting critical environmental processes.

The impulse to harden shorelines to halt coastal erosion is driven, in part, by the lack of a public understanding and subsequent appreciation for the capacity of nature to mitigate the impacts of rising seas and extreme storms. The widespread use of gray infrastructure is also perpetuated by consultants, contractors, and government agencies whose expertise is often limited to traditional shoreline armoring for the single purpose of protecting property, buildings, homes, roads, and critical facilities.  Without understanding the effectiveness of natural systems to provide equal protection with multiple benefits, coastal communities end up with hardened shorelines that eventually degrade the ecosystem and increase risk.

Shoreline armoring along Chesapeake Bay on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Photo credit: Barry Truitt

Shoreline armoring along Chesapeake Bay on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Photo credit: Barry Truitt

The goal of our coastal resilience work is to make the case to local governments, contractors, and citizens that coastal ecosystems are nature’s first line of defense against shoreline erosion, flooding, and inundation.  We also want to promote the recognition that these ecosystems provide other essential services, filtering water, sequestering carbon, ensuring the productivity of fish and shellfish, and increasing biodiversity—that are diminished or lost with traditional gray infrastructure solutions.

Read more about shellfish, saltmarshes, seagrass, and other habitats that provide nature based solutions.

Fowling Point at sunrise, east of Red Bank, Virginia. Photo © 2015 Gordon Campbell / At Altitude Gallery

Fowling Point at sunrise, east of Red Bank, Virginia. Photo © 2015 Gordon Campbell / At Altitude Gallery

The Coastal Resilience approach to mitigating the effects of climate change on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and in coastal communities around the world is to catalyze the adoption of nature-based solutions The abundance of protected coastal wilderness on Virginia’s Eastern Shore offers the ideal place in Virginia to demonstrate and learn about the capacity of natural infrastructure to mitigate risks from rising sea levels and extreme storms.

Live oysters growing on oyster castles protecting salt marsh in the background at Box Tree Oyster Sanctuary. Photo credit: Bowdoin Lusk

Live oysters growing on oyster castles protecting salt marsh in the background at Box Tree Oyster Sanctuary. Photo credit: Bowdoin Lusk/The Nature Conservancy

The Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Working Group is a consortium of local governments and organizations dedicated to the regional coordination of adaptation planning. It is coordinated by the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission. This working group has identified the following strategies to enhance resilience and aid in climate-related adaptation:

Reduce climate-related risks and enhance natural resilience. The Coastal Resilience approach is being implemented in the Eastern Shore of Virginia with stakeholder workshops and the development of the Coastal Resilience Mapping and Decision Support tool using local information. The novelty of this tool is that it enables identification of nature-based solutions like oyster and wetland restoration to mitigate risk and enhance resilience.

Volunteers planting marsh grasses at a living shoreline demonstration project on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. Photo credit: Gwynn Crichton

Volunteers planting marsh grasses at a living shoreline demonstration project on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. Photo credit: Gwynn Crichton/The Nature Conservancy

Demonstrate how healthy and restored coastal habits are cost-effective ways of increasing the resilience of coastal communities.  Coastal habitats are being restored and through specific demonstration projects, the efficacy of these habitats in reducing destructive wave energy is being studied. Read our latest post on making the case for nature-based solutions in Virginia’s coastal bays: Quantifying the wave-dampening effects of restored oyster reefs on eroding shorelines.

Building oyster castles at Boxtree Farm. Photo © Bo Lusk / The Nature Conservancy

Building oyster castles at Boxtree Farm. Photo Credit: Bo Lusk/The Nature Conservancy

Educate local stakeholders and communities about climate change, natural infrastructure, and adaptation decision support tools. The Eastern Shore community is being engaged on how to adapt to conditions that threaten their homes, livelihoods, and way of life is mission critical as is translating research, data and science into usable information for local decision-making via the Coastal Resilience tool, forums, and other arenas for public education.  View latest workshop materials and outcomes here: Coastal Resilience tool workshop for the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Watermen pulling crab pots near Oyster, Virginia. Photo © 2015 Gordon Campbell / At Altitude Gallery

Watermen pulling crab pots near Oyster, Virginia. Photo © 2015 Gordon Campbell / At Altitude Gallery

View the Coastline Change Historic Data Module App in Action