Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Helping Wetlands On the Move

May 26, 2021 | Healthy Habitats, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, Reserves, What We Work For

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.

Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

Share This
What We Work ForHealthy HabitatsHelping Wetlands On the Move