U.S. East Coast Emerging as Leader for Climate Resiliency
Science, policy, and new technologies are creating solutions for the changing climate in one of the U.S.’s most populated and vulnerable regions
In the United States, The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) work from Maine to Miami has positioned the region as an emerging leader for climate resiliency. Home to over a third of the country’s population, the U.S. East Coast boasts three distinct climate zones and some of the most densely populated and economically important coastal cities in the world. The area between Washington, D.C. and Boston, alone, holds 20 percent of the country’s GDP on only 2 percent of its land mass. Growing stressors including flooding, extreme weather events, drought, ocean acidification, and sea level rise, among others, are putting increased pressure on both nature and people in this region.
Ten years ago, Conservancy scientists in the Northeast began shifting the way they addressed land conservation and ecosystem protection to include climate change information. By incorporating decades of data on habitats from Canada to Alabama, TNC developed an innovative new mapping tool (Resilient Land Mapping Tool) that allows researchers, engineers, politicians and the general public to view how the local environment will shift under climate change, and pinpoint resilient areas that, if protected, could enhance adaptation.
This tool has been influential in expanding traditional methods of conservation, and is used regularly by TNC staff and various organizations including local land trusts, NGOs, and government agencies. Other areas in the U.S. are now adopting these techniques for their own conservation purposes. “We’re analyzing massive amounts of data – more than ever before – to conserve natural processes,” says Dr. Mark Anderson, Director of Conservation Science. “It has taken a long time to say ‘this place is going to be resilient to climate change, we should invest here.’ I can’t tell you the power of that.”
A similar Nature Conservancy decision-support tool that analyzes coastal resilience was developed with economic and social data inputs to show communities which infrastructure or populations are particularly vulnerable to climate change. This can help and guide regional policies and priorities to improve local resilience. Since Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011, over 800,000 residents across 35 municipalities in coastal Connecticut have been involved with building resilient communities. This innovative community-driven effort has resulted in changes to state statutes that now embrace natural solutions to prevent shoreline erosion and inland flooding, such as preserving and expanding the region’s salt marshes and dunes.
Dr. Adam Whelchel, Director of Science for the Connecticut Chapter, says that through TNC’s strong community leadership in the state, he has seen substantial advancements in recent years. “Now when elected officials and the private sector in Connecticut look at natural resources they think beyond just habitat and embrace them as community assets that reduce risk for families and neighborhoods,” says Dr. Whelchel. “There’s been a shift from ‘natural resources’ to ‘natural infrastructure’ – people are thinking about safety and health.”
Natural infrastructure has also increasingly become part of Florida’s framework for addressing climate change. The state’s beaches and coastal cities, including Miami, are some of the most vulnerable areas in the country. But a recent TNC study shows that coral reefs that crest at the surface can reduce up to 97 percent of wave energy, while providing additional benefits such as fish habitat and increased tourism value. Since 2004, TNC has restored nearly 15,000 coral colonies to Florida’s reefs, with first-year coral survival rates averaging above 80 percent.
These proven solutions at the local level are helping enhance national and international policies to include the benefits of nature-based defenses. Over the past two years, TNC has been working with Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, to advance their tools so that natural infrastructure and climate change are incorporated into their coastal risk assessment models. Integrating environmental and climate science into insurance pricing models creates financial incentives for governments and businesses to maximize nature’s role in climate risk reduction.
“The reduced risk that nature brings could and should mean reduced costs of covering those risks with insurance. And if you create this financial incentive to use more natural systems to build resilience, nature wins big all around the world,” wrote Kathy McLeod, Director of Climate Risk and Resilience in a recent Staff News article.
As the climate continues to change, technological advances, growing community involvement, and innovative finance techniques, are increasingly becoming part of powerful natural solutions for climate adaptation.