Taking Wetland Adaptation Science on a Road Trip

6.09.2017 (Fri)


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Sea Level Rise and the Future of Wetlands

Putting science on the ground sometimes means hitting the road. In early June, Sinead Borchert, a USGS ecologist funded by the South Central and Southeast CSCs, set off on a tour of the Gulf of Mexico coast. Wetlands in this region are on the move in response to sea-level rise and land use change, presenting a serious challenge for managers. Borchert’s mission was to share LCC-funded research on how wetlands are expected to move over time and to explore possibilities for the use of this research in local conservation decision-making.

As sea level rise begins to infringe on coastal wetlands, resource managers are asking how these ecosystems will be affected. Many biologists believe that wetlands are some of the most valuable ecosystems in the world. Tidal saline wetlands are an abundant feature of the northern Gulf of Mexico coast, where they buffer storm surge, filter water, reduce flooding, provide fish and wildlife habitat, and store carbon. Sea level rise is expected to force these ecosystems to move inland, but there is still a lot of uncertainty about how and where they will move.

The four Landscape Conservation Cooperatives whose regions include the Gulf Coast recognized this knowledge gap regarding wetland movement. To empower management decision-making, they collaborated to jointly fund a study by the USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center (WARC) that mapped opportunities and barriers for managing wetlands on the move. The researchers at WARC identified where future urban development and future tidal saline wetland migration are expected to occur under five different potential sea level rise scenarios. The maps produced by the project are helping managers visualize opportunities for proactively conserving wetlands while taking into account other land use needs. The researchers also developed maps showing where wetland migration is expected to occur on protected lands, giving managers insight into facilitating wetland migration where they currently work.

A Gulf Coast Resiliency Road Trip

The South Central and Southeast Climate Science Centers recognized the importance of this wetland migration science to coastal managers and funded Borchert to develop customized decision-support products for specific communities. Borchert traveled to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida to speak with hundreds of public, private, and non-profit resource manager about the wetland migration work and gain a better understanding of the management contexts along the coast. She received many requests for localized maps and other decision-support products, which she will be working to produce this summer.

This project is an example of how LCCs and CSCs work together to support and deliver impacts-focused research directly to managers.

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USGS Ecologist Borchert discusses the potential impacts of sea level rise on wetlands in the Mobile Bay.