Helping Wetlands On the Move

Helping Wetlands On the Move

Mary Schoell, a NOAA Digital Coast Fellow, collects marsh elevation data in the field.

Coastal wetland migration—the gradual shift of tidal wetland habitats inland—is a natural process that’s been accelerated by sea level rise. As the U.S. moves to protect 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030, understanding how to protect the upland areas that these coastal wetlands will move to is critical. A new project is leveraging the science, expertise, and partnership networks of the National Estuarine Research Reserves System (NERRS) to help prepare communities to support coastal wetlands on the move and secure their benefits for future generations.  

“The NERRS is well-situated to facilitate the protection of coastal wetland migration corridors,” says Mary Schoell, project lead and a NOAA Digital Coast Fellow co-hosted by NERRA and Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve. “Reserves not only directly contribute to our scientific understanding of wetland migration through research and long-term monitoring, they have strong, on-the-ground partnerships with local decision makers. If Reserve staff aren’t the people working on land acquisition and conservation—and many of them are—they certainly know who is.”

To support the Reserve system’s work, Schoell is undertaking a needs assessment to understand what different Reserves and regions need to protect migration corridors. This work will inform communications products to help meet those needs, as well as guidance for policy-makers and managers.

Although the assessment will not be complete until this summer, common needs are already emerging. For example, in the Southeast, where there is potential to conserve over one million acres of resilient marshes, much of the upland areas are owned by private landowners. As a result, Reserves and their partners in this region need tools and strategies to communicate with these landowners, as well as higher resolution, local mapping data to inform strategic decision-making. Part of Schoell’s work will be connecting Reserves with NOAA data and mapping resources where available.

“I hope to leverage the work Reserves already do to elevate the conversation to a regional and national level, which could translate into more funding,” says Schoell. “We need to understand how best to apply our finite resources towards coastal wetland conservation and restoration.” 

The stakes are high. Coastal wetlands are valuable habitats that store carbon, filter pollutants, protect important fisheries, and shelter coastal infrastructure from storm damage, flooding, and erosion. They’re also threatened: human activities have led to the degradation or loss of 50% of our salt marshes in the last century, and rising seas, stronger storms, more extreme precipitation, and drought are all contributing to their decline.

All 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves experienced at least one moderate, major, or catastrophic climate-related impact from 2009 to 2019—many of which affect wetland condition.

Like many of the challenges created by the impacts of climate change, equity is a critical issue. “How we choose where to conserve land is not a question only of where wetlands are projected to go; it also involves partnerships, money, and people interested in conserving that land. Do we default to areas of lower income?” says Schoell. “More work is needed.”

Once complete, Mary’s work will join a suite of tools the Reserve system provides to advance the goals of efficient, effective marsh conservation and restoration, including the Landscape Scale Marsh Resilience Project, which supports “apples to apples” comparison of tidal marsh condition across broad scales nationwide.

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How to Talk About Climate Change During a Pandemic

How to Talk About Climate Change During a Pandemic

Emphasizing connections to the natural world is one way communities can integrate efforts to address climate change and manage the COVID-19 epidemic. Photo courtesy Narragansett Bay Reserve.

As the world faces down the challenges of the past year, one fact remains: we need to talk about climate change. Whether the conversation is between scientists and decision makers, educators and students, or even family members at the dinner table, how we talk about it has a huge impact on how our words are received. A new training from Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve is helping coastal communities reckon with the climate change conversation in a way that’s constructive, even under the weight of other crises.

“Many people are still building their confidence to talk about climate change, and the pandemic didn’t help,” says Jen West, the Reserve’s coastal training program coordinator who developed the training with support from the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI). “This training is intended to help everyone adapt and respond to the unique demands of this moment by providing ways to maximize the positive outcomes of climate communications in a COVID-19 context.”

Through the NERRS national network, the Rhode Island-based training has been offered to communities and Reserve partners from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. These events engaged hundreds of participants at more than 53 organizations, providing tools and ideas to help shape local educationand conversationaround climate change. One component of the training advice is specific to navigating these conversations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemican ongoing concern for many communities.

“This training was a great reminder that the language we use to discuss topics greatly impacts the way our audience receives the message; it provided tools for discussing climate change at a time when our communications have to be drastically modified,” says Taylor Ryan, an air quality specialist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

“One idea that has really stuck with me is how the media is often pitting environmental ‘improvement’ against the COVID-19 crisis; for example, saying ‘air quality is better because less people are driving to work.’ As representatives of environmental agencies, and personal environmental stewards, we want to ensure the narrative does not create a divide between environmental and economic issues by using positive messaging toward both.”

COVID offers us an opportunity to highlight our connections to each other and the natural world, observes West. “It can be a way to help people understand why it’s important to take action at a community level. Any time we can align efforts to address COVID-19 with with those focused on climate change, we are helping to build that understanding and sense of empowerment,” she says.

The training uses a set of market-tested “frameworks” to give people effective, proven ways to shape the climate change conversation in ways that connect with the person they’re engaging. Certain metaphorical frames are effective for communicating complex concepts: for example, NNOCCI recommends explaining ocean acidification as an “osteoporosis of the sea.” Positive frames that emphasize protecting people and places and responsible stewardship work better to promote action than dire messages.

“We have to tell a story that’s not just doom and gloom, because we know that doesn’t work,” says West. “Hope promotes dialogue and action—now is the time to shift the national conversation about climate change to be more positive, civic-minded, and solutions-focused.”

Tips for How to Talk About Climate Change—Even During a Pandemic. Watch a recording from the Wells Reserve here.

Using more positive frames has resonated with many participants. “I’m redoing our forest ecology program for students in middle school and want to add a climate connection,” says Tracey Hall, an education coordinator for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “I got some helpful ideas to connect the importance of forests, trees as a carbon sink and related steps people can do that take the gloom and doom out!”

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Kenny Raposa

Talk NERRdy to Me: Kenny Raposa

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29-soon-to-be-30 Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov chats with Dr. Kenny Raposa, research coordinator at Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve, about his crabs, the Marsh Restoration Club for Men, and the benefits of not being dead yet.

Nik: February is the shortest month—who better to talk to than Dr. Kenneth Raposa? But seriously, Kenny, how long have you been at NBNERR?

Kenny: April will be 21 years. 

Nik: That’s a long exile. Napoleon was only on St. Helena for six years! Do you actually work on the islands of the Reserve?

Kenny: I do! Though not every day, especially not right now. Right now, when I go out there about once a month, I stay for three days. Which is nice. I get to spend some quality time out on Prudence.

Nik: The NBNERR islands are Prudence, Patience, Hope, and Dyer, right? It’s like three sisters from a Hawthorne novel… and also Dyer. But twenty-one years. Wow. What did you do before that? 

Kenny: I’m a lifelong Rhode Islander. I was born and raised in East Providence and then did what everyone says not to do—my undergraduate, Master’s, and PhD, all at the University of Rhode Island. I specialized in biological oceanography, but you have to take classes and labs in physical, geological, and chemical oceanography, too. In theory, I know a lot about oceanography. Or at least I’ve forgotten a lot about oceanography.

Nik: Rhode Island’s the Ocean State. Were you a shore kid?

Kenny: Absolutely. I grew up right near the Bay and spent a lot of my youth poking around the shorelines and the marshes that were there way back when.

Nik: From childhood, you’ve been wading around in the grass.

Kenny: Oh yeah, I caused a lot of trampling damage in my years.

Nik: The guilt of the scientist! This is why we can’t have nice things. How early on did you know you wanted to study these places?

Kenny: I didn’t know! Like many American males I was clueless up until…..

Nik: …Age fifty?

Kenny: I was going to say ‘high school.’ But as an undergrad at URI, I was lucky enough to have most classes wrapped up by my senior year, so I was able to take a full semester internship at the Graduate School of Oceanography [GSO]. That’s where I got introduced to marine science. 

Nik: What did you specialize in? 

Kenny: Kind of the same stuff I do now! For my Master’s, I worked down in Fire Island, New York, characterizing the nekton, which are fish and crustaceans. My PhD was focused on nekton, too, but it was looking at their responses to tidal marsh restoration across southern New England.

Nik: So it’s northeast marshes—really southern New England marshes—for an entire lifetime?

Kenny: I’m not dead yet!

Nik: I just mean other people have taken a circuitous route. But you must know your locale so well. What can you tell us about the salt marshes of Rhode Island? What does the world need to know?

Kenny: The world needs to know that if you want to see a lot of them, come now. [dark laughter] 

Nik: It’s like “they’re leaving Netflix on February 28th, watch them now!”

Kenny: We’ve done so much work on these marshes. We can put them into perspective regionally and nationally. We know how bad they are in terms of current conditions and future projections. It’s not an exaggeration to say we’re losing many of them right now, rapidly. 

Nik: We’ve been joking around a bit, but this comes down to one of the questions that plagues our system and the people working in it. I don’t want to pick at a scab, but how does it make you feel to say something like that?

Kenny: It’s tough. I often think of what used to be my favorite marsh, Coggeshall Marsh, right in the Reserve. I’ve been poking around in there for more than twenty years. It used to be so beautiful and in really good shape. I’ve been monitoring it since 2000, and I’ve quantified and seen year-to-year how rapidly it’s degraded. It’s almost unrecognizable compared to twenty years ago. Sometimes I don’t like going out there.

Nik: But change is a natural process, like all of us aging and becoming more and more attractive. [Nik and Kenny both tip their ball caps to reveal receding hairlines] We need some thin layer placement up here!

Kenny: Haha! I’d like that.

Nik: But in the marshes, is their degradation a natural process, or is something driving it?

Kenny: The vast majority of the impacts to our Rhode Island marshes are from sea-level rise. 

Nik: Which is anthropogenically driven. On these pages, all agree on that. Is their biology also changing? You’ve also been studying life on these marshes for decades. You were a co-PI on the national crab synthesis that came out and looked at crabs throughout the system. What do we need to know about crabs?

Kenny: Their effects on the marsh vary by state and region, but here in Rhode Island, in Southern New England, the crabs are intimately linked to sea-level rise. As the marshes get wetter, these crabs have more access to the marsh surface. The peat softens, so they can burrow in. And it’s just a cascading impact that degrades these marshes even faster.

Nik: All these threats to the marshes that you’ve spent your life in. So what are you going to do about it? Tell me about thin-layer placement (TLP)

Kenny: I was not really aware of this technique until about 8 years ago or so, and even then I was pretty skeptical. But I got to participate in a large-scale TLP project—which is where you add sediment to a marsh surface to raise it higher—down in Charlestown, Rhode Island, and got to witness firsthand how beneficial TLP can be when done correctly. That marsh now looks just gorgeous, after about four years. So I’m a huge proponent of TLP in certain situations, and I’m optimistic that we can do more of those projects in Rhode Island.

Nik: Where does the sediment come from? 

Kenny: That’s why I say it’s a good technique to use in certain places, because the sediment is usually sourced from nearby dredging projects. The other possible source for sediments— and we did this in our big NERRS TLP project—is from local quarries. We did that in part because it was easier, and there is precedent. The US Fish & Wildlife Service did a project in Sachuest Point Marsh in Middletown, RI, where they did use some quarry-derived sand on the marsh.

Nik: It would have gotten there eventually, in millions of years, right? They just trucked it over and sped it up a bit.

Kenny: Just a bit, yeah.

Nik: What’s next for the Narragansett Bay Reserve, and for its research in particular?

Kenny: We’re still doing some TLP. I think there’s a lot we need to learn about doing these projects effectively. One thing I’m really excited for: we have a pre-proposal into the NERRS Science Collaborative to do wildlife photography in coastal marshes with motion sensor cameras. We’re going to look at large-scale wildlife value for marshes across the System, which has not been done.

Nik: Are you a photographer yourself? Why photos?

Kenny: We used these cameras in a small project in 2019. We set them up to look at wildlife use of TLP marshes at different stages of recovery. We put some out in a mature TLP site, some at a brand-new TLP site, and some other cameras in a control marsh. I didn’t think much of it, but as the photos started coming in, I was just blown away at their quality, and the diversity of animals that were using these sites. It showed me that you can tell some good scientific stories with these cameras. I’m a big proponent of doing these big national syntheses in the NERRS, and I think this might be a really fun and useful thing to do across the entire system, not just for science, but also for outreach and education. 

Nik: We’re the selfie society, why not? What else do people want to look at anymore but photos of things? Lightning round. What’s your favorite marsh creature?

Kenny: By default I have to say mummichog. 

Nik: Patens or alterniflora? 

Kenny: Love Patens. Sad to see it leaving us.

Nik: High marsh or low marsh

Kenny: Oh, high marsh.

Nik: That’s where you want to be. Kenny, thanks for the time this morning. I dressed up for this. [gestures to his own plaid shirt and baseball cap]

Kenny: I actually shaved about 20 minutes before this call.

Nik: Good for you.

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New England Marshes Need Support

New England Marshes Need Support

Scientists at the Wells and Great Bay Reserves monitor a marsh in Maine’s Webhannet Estuary

New England salt marshes are losing the battle to sea level rise, according to a regional study led by the University of New Hampshire along with four National Estuarine Research Reserves. The study presents a clear call to action for coastal land managers from Rhode Island to Maine: these ‘superhero’ habitats do so much for us—from storing carbon and reducing water pollution to protecting fisheries and mitigating the impacts of storms—and now, they need our help.

“This is critical information for coastal resource managers and decision makers, especially those who might be uncertain whether their local marshes are at risk,” says Chris Peter, research coordinator at New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve. “Our research indicates that we can anticipate even greater salt marsh loss with rising sea levels, and managers should take steps to help marshes cope.”

According to Peter, the research points to a need for resource managers to consider in-marsh restoration techniques, like boosting elevation with sediment and reducing historical ditching. Another option, when feasible, is to allow marshes to naturally migrate upslope and inland  by removing barriers and protecting adjacent land.

The study synthesized information from Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve, Massachusetts’s Waquoit Bay Reserve, New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve, and Maine’s Wells Reserve. It builds on a decade-long project in which 20 Reserves are collecting long-term data on tidal marsh health in an unprecedented effort to study, compare, understand, and protect these valuable habitats. 

“This New England study is the first to use long term, on-the-ground monitoring across a region to show the vulnerability of salt marshes to sea level rise,” says Peter. 

The team analyzed salt marsh plant communities at the four Reserves. They found that, across New England, salt marshes are shrinking in response to greater flooding and an overall wetter environment. Today’s marshes cover roughly half the area of historic marshes and the region is likely to lose an estimated 60 to 90% of existing marshes in the coming century.

Marsh vegetation dies off when it cannot keep up with the frequency and intensity of tidal inundations. One monitoring location on Narragansett Bay went from being predominantly vegetated to almost barren in just five years. At other places, the plant communities are shifting to more saltwater-tolerant plants.

Researchers and volunteers monitor long-term salt marsh plots on New Hampshire’s Great Bay.

The researchers found that southern New England’s marshes are declining at a faster rate than northern New England, possibly due to the smaller tidal range, which makes rising seas proportionally more significant. 

The results from this study, made possible by the NERRS unique and systematic data-collection methods, will help to inform how decision makers protect and manage salt marshes in the face of rising seas and other climate threats.

Bob Stankelis: NERRA’s Estuary Hero

Bob Stankelis: NERRA’s Estuary Hero

Photo courtesy Narragansett Bay Reserve.

NERRA is proud to recognize the late Bob Stankelis as our estuary hero of 2020. As manager of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve for more than 15 years, Bob left a legacy of people and places made better through his influence.

“Bob was inspired by a desire to make a difference,” says Rebecca Roth, NERRA’s executive director. “He left a career in rocket science to one focused on protecting the coastal places he cared about. Everyone who loves estuaries is in his debt.”

Under Bob’s guidance, the Narragansett Bay Reserve became a leader in salt marsh research and a living laboratory for environmental education.

“From conducting leading-edge seagrass science to enhancing the Reserve’s infrastructure and programs, Bob’s legacy is strong,” says Kenneth Raposa, the Reserve’s research coordinator. “His impact on Prudence Island and Narragansett Bay is a testament to his outstanding dedication to estuaries.”

Bob’s brought partners together to conserve more than 225 acres of land and ensure that 85 percent of Prudence Island will be protected in perpetuity.

“Bob understood that many people needed to come together to protect and restore our estuaries,” says Jen West, the Reserve’s coastal training program coordinator. “He brought us together and enhanced every process with his passion, knowledge, work ethic, empathy, and kindness.”

Bob was recently recognized with a posthumous lifetime achievement Environmental Merit Award by USEPA for his long career devoted to protecting the environment.

We miss you, Bob.

Welcome, Mary!

Welcome, Mary!

The National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA) and the Narragansett Bay Reserve are delighted to welcome new NOAA Digital Coast Fellow, Mary Schoell. 

Mary will develop and refine data tools on coastal wetland migration pathways and identify what end-users need to protect these pathways. 

“Protecting the spaces where we predict marshes will migrate is a proactive coastal resilience strategy with numerous environmental, economic, and cultural benefits,” she says. “I’m thrilled to put my scientific understanding of the subject into action and to help ensure that marsh migration modeling tools can be understood and implemented by those who make on-the-ground changes to protect our coastal ecosystems.” 

“I’m also incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work within the NERRS,” she adds. “A collaborative program that combines research, education, and stewardship is an amazing balance of what I’m looking for in a career in coastal management.”

Mary grew up in the rural town of East Haddam, Connecticut, which shaped her love and appreciation for the natural world. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree at the University of Connecticut, she worked for three years on a salt marsh restoration project with the US EPA’s Atlantic Coastal Environmental Sciences Division in Narragansett. 

Mary earned her master’s in Environmental Science from the Yale School of the Environment last May. There she studied the effects of sea-level rise and storm surge on salt marsh migration into coastal forests along Long Island Sound. Through a forestry technique known as dendrochronology, she explored the timescale in which salt water inundation drives tree stress, tree death, and marsh migration. She is excited to act on the broader land use management implications of this research through her NOAA Digital Coast Fellowship.

ReservesNarragansett Bay, Rhode Island