Mother Earth Knows Best: Finding Disaster Resilience in Nature

seagrass planting event
Photo by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

Fifty years after the moon landing, it’s easy to look back with awe on those days of great national will and collective use of our brightest minds. Some modern technologists think with similar combined brainpower and funding, we could use unprecedented “shoot-the-moon” technologies to solve climate change.

But others are looking to established solutions. Conservationists across the globe are striving to restore nature to combat climate change and its effects. Scientists and organizers are leading communities to understand the importance of overlooked ecosystems as they take on climate change in their own backyards.

Saving a State with Shellfish

Louisiana is disappearing. Historically, Louisiana had built levees to protect against the flooding Mississippi River. But more recently, modern development, including oil drilling, and hurricanes have torn apart this land and increased erosion. Louisiana has lost one million acres of wetlands and 2,000 square miles of coastal land in the last century, according to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL).

CRCL, a New Orleans-based nonprofit, has been working to conserve and reform the state’s coastlines since 1988, before the state’s land-loss problem was even well-recognized.

One solution may lie on our dinner plates with oysters. That’s right—the high-priced seafood are housed in hard shells that naturally form walls under the water, which can help break strong waves during big storms. Over the years, overharvesting oysters has weakened these habitats’ ability to filter water and protect coastlines from storms. Oyster depletion has affected bodies of water from New York to Maryland to Louisiana.

In 2014, CRCL launched its oyster shell recycling program after finding that Louisiana, which produces one third of the nation’s oysters, does not get many of those shells back. Worse, most end up in landfills.

The innovative recycling program collects shells from 18 local restaurants, then volunteers bag up the shells and drop them back into the water to create habitats that young oysters can settle in. CRCL constructed its first half-mile reef in 2016.

Kat Loomis, habitat restoration coordinator at CRCL, is from Lafayette, Louisiana, a small city close to the Gulf Coast. She grew up with wetlands being a natural and beautiful part of her surroundings that she loved.

“When I started learning about land loss and what the state is dealing with it really gave me that push of, ‘Wow, this is my home.’ I really value the culture that surrounds our wetlands,” says Loomis. “It made me want to help and do my part to restore and sustain Louisiana for as long as we can.”

Researchers at Tulane University estimate the Louisiana coast is sinking over a third of an inch per year. Residents of Isle de Jean Charles, one of the state’s barrier islands, have already become the country’s first officially recognized climate refugees, receiving federal funding to relocate from their homes in 2016. Most of those residents belong to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, which had been relocated there as part of the Indian Removal Act of the 1830s.

Loomis works closely with other community members to rebuild areas that rising seas and sinking land is quickly eliminating. Besides oyster restoration, she and the group conduct dune restoration, marsh grass plantings, and coastal forest tree planting.

Trees to Weather the Storm

Florida is often the punching bag for big storms because of its location in the path of hurricanes and its low-lying landscape—Florida has the second-lowest average elevation of all the states. Those two issues paired together can be a nasty combination.

When big storms cause high tides and flooding, salt water intrusion can harm freshwater wetlands and marshes. Enter mangrove trees, which have an odd name and even stranger look. Native on saltwater coasts around the world, these trees have visible root systems which often extend several feet above the
normal water level to the tree trunk.

These trees are multi-talented when it comes to our changing climate. Not only do they handle big storms—their roots literally hold the earth in place—but they also have an outsized impact in drawing down carbon and reversing climate change. According to Project Drawdown, the soil of mangrove forests in coastal wetlands can store five times as much carbon as tropical forests, and may hold 22 billion tons of carbon, making their protection crucial in the fight on climate change. And compared to the cost of implementing new solutions to the climate crisis, not polluting or destroying coastal wetlands is very inexpensive.

Kathy Worley is a biologist and the director of environmental science at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an organization that works to protect that region’s environment, including through mangrove restoration. After 25 years in this role, Worley is heartened to see the changing political and community perspective on the preservation of the trees. When she began, people saw them as ugly parts of dirty swamps and a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

“People are realizing how much the environment really does for us. And that is the key because if it matters to the individuals and to the crowds, then it’s going to matter to the politicians who make the laws,” says Worley. “Now that we realize the value of mangroves, it’s time to invest in their future.”

Protect the Water, Protect Ourselves

In Palm Bay, Florida, the Marine Resources Council (MRC) aims to protect and restore the Indian River Lagoon, partly by using mangroves.

The MRC’s Mangrove Program collects mangrove propagules (like seeds) and grows 6,000 plants in its two greenhouses. Kate Zehnder, the MRC’s director of development, says community members love gathering propagules on the beach to be planted.

The MRC and volunteers plant the mangroves along the shores of the lagoon in an effort to establish native and resilient shorelines. Native shorelines have been found to be far more resilient during hurricanes, while also providing critical habitat to fish and bird species, and removing potentially harmful nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous from the water.

The lagoon faces similar problems to waterways across the country—its habitats for animal populations and plant species have been degraded due to pollution and development. While point-source contamination is often a contributor to water pollution, Zehnder says the landscaped areas around the lagoon and fertilizer-laden stormwater runoff from streets are among the biggest culprits.

“I grew up here, seeing the river which used to be a really big fishing area and you could get a lot of oysters and clams. Now you’re lucky if you can catch a fish,” says Cassidy Myers, a community member who also works on lagoon restoration. “That really struck a chord with me.”

Thanks to years of outreach and education, Zehnder and Myers say local communities are getting onboard with the steps it takes to fight erosion and pollution affecting local bodies of water.

“One thing that unites our community is the fight to protect the lagoon,” says Zehnder.

Resilience for the Future

From Louisiana to Florida and across the country, environmental conservationists look to what works in nature to see what people can adapt and use. In the face of climate change and for the health of our world, we cannot rely only on faraway “shoot-the-moon” technologies— in the natural world we can find tested models for climate resilience and carbon drawdown.


What You Can Do to Help

In hearing from these experts from areas hit hard by big storms, flooding, and rising seas, it’s easy to be inspired. Luckily there’s a lot you can do to protect waterways and coastal habitats no matter where you live.

  • Avoid chemical fertilizers. If you must use them, avoid applying them in summer months when it’s rainier in most parts of the country. Nitrogen in fertilizer can contribute to algae blooms and kill plants and animals that keep water healthy.
  • Look after your car and pets. Leaking chemicals and fecal matter get washed into storm drains and end up polluting coastal waters. Make sure your car is in good condition and that pet waste makes it to the trash can.
  • Use a rain barrel. Besides collecting water for your garden, a rain barrel can mitigate stormwater runoff and then release the water into your yard to be absorbed when it’s not so saturated.
  • Protect the trees. Kathy Worley says in the US, construction of roads and other features that re-route water is the biggest threat to mangrove habitats. Ask developers or local officials what they’re doing to conserve and protect habitats during construction.
  • Ask your elected officials to pass climate legislation. Warming temperatures result in more frequent and intense storms that cause flooding and high winds, which are as bad for underwater habitats as they are for human ones on land.
From Green American Magazine Issue