Coastal Wetlands Critical for Disaster Mitigation, Human Health

By Chrysandra Medley

In 2017, US disaster relief exceeded $300 billion— marking it as the most expensive year since NOAA began keeping record in 1980.  Of that amount, $265 billion were due to damages from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

How can we address this problem as we move forward into a period of increasingly severe disasters?  According to ESSIC Associate Research Professor Ariana Sutton-Grier, we need to turn our gaze to the coastal wetlands.

Last month, Sutton-Grier spoke alongside Paul Sandifer, Director of the Center for Coastal Environment and Human Health at the College of Charleston, in a presentation titled “Coastal Wetlands Reduce Disaster Risk, Protect Biodiversity, and Promote Human Health and Well-Being”.  The event was a part of NOAA’s National Ocean Service Seminar Series.

The natural response to coastline disaster, said Sutton-Grier, is a move to harden shorelines, or artificially armor the coast with manmade structures such as seawalls.  But she believes this is often a misuse of resources.

“Our disaster risk planning right now really doesn’t consider the landscape,” she notes, “It doesn’t consider those natural infrastructure pieces that could work for us.”

Coastal wetlands are naturally equipped with infrastructure including salt marshes, oyster reefs, and barrier islands that can slow storms and reduce severity of disasters.

“These systems are typically the weakest the day you’re finished with your restoration.  They will continue to strengthen over time— that’s the exact opposite of built infrastructure, which weakens with time and is strongest the day you finish construction.”

Natural infrastructure also boasts much lower maintenance costs, as structures naturally grow and adapt to different conditions over time.

Preserving and restoring natural infrastructure can be a part of a “natural and nature-based” solution to disasters, minimizing impacts while also promoting biodiversity.

But disaster mitigation isn’t the only reason we should conserve coastal wetlands, the presenters noted.

“There is growing evidence that contact with diverse natural habitats has important positive impacts for human health,” said Sandifer.

These benefits include reduced stress, decreased blood pressure, and improved mood, self-esteem, energy, and pleasure. Exposure to nature is also important for immune function and for preventing other illnesses including allergies, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Sandifer cited one study that found that hospital patients improve faster when they have a view of trees from their window.

“If having more biodiverse areas around helps enhance your family’s health and protect them from disease, people are likely to be more interested in conservation,” Sandifer commented.

“This is a call to be thinking more broadly about the conservation of wetlands and be strategic to help us lessen the damage from major storms ,” concluded Sutton-Grier.

At ESSIC, Sutton-Grier is an ecosystem ecologist with expertise in wetland ecology and restoration, biodiversity, biogeochemistry, climate change, and ecosystem services.  She also serves as the Director of Science for the MD/DC chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

To read more about Sutton-Grier’s recent work, click here and to access the publications mentioned click here. To view the presentation, click here.