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Planning for Our Ocean Future

Watching beach clean up efforts after Superstorm Sandy.
Watching beach clean up efforts after Superstorm Sandy.

Summer in the Northern Hemisphere is winding down and, the tenth Pacific storm of the season (Juliette) crossed the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula with gusts of more than 80 miles an hour, and elsewhere, folks are remembering where they were eight years ago when Hurricane Katrina swept up the Gulf of Mexico pushing a wall of water that would wreak destruction on the coastal states in her path—as part of a season that brought four major hurricanes and billions of dollars in damage.  Soon, we’ll be looking back at the devastating force of Superstorm Sandy as we approach the one-year anniversary.   Sportscasters like to talk about moments or individual performances that are “gamechangers,” and from many perspectives, Katrina and Sandy were just that—events that re-framed the conversation about what our ocean future looks like.  The dramatic changes over a single year to the East Coast of the U.S. and elsewhere has left many wondering what the future will bring—especially for those whose communities depend on visitors to the sea for their economic well-being.

Just looking at the headlines of the stack of magazines and reports that have arrived in the last month, we know that people are playing attention, especially local governments.  The National Geographic cover featuring Sea Level Rise is just one sign of a diverse collection of stories about communities planning for a future with higher sea levels—and greater risk to their infrastructure.  It is not a crisis response, but a thoughtful anticipation of what it is that can be done, and how to plan for the effects of storms on human built environments, when compounded by sea level rise, the loss of buffering marshes, dunes, and coastal scrub, and other coastal disturbances.

In the U.S. multiple planning efforts began in the wake of Sandy: even communities who were not hard hit are also looking at the projections of sea level rise alone as a factor in deciding whether to keep repairing coastal infrastructure.  For example, York County is home to 300 miles of Maine’s coastline and some of New England’s most popular beaches—making it a key contributor to Maine’s economy. The State of Maine government itself is very aware of the 3500 miles of state coastline that draw thousands of visitors, generate significant income from fishing and lobstering, and support the well-being of communities far from the shore.  Since 2008, the state has developed a suite of strategies known as the Coastal Hazards Resiliency Tools Project.  Through the project, the state works with individual towns at their request, providing initial mapping projections and holding community workshops—encouraging problem-solving where the problems will hit hardest and where the decisions have to be made—locally.  But it does not make the decisions easy.

Nubble Light House in York County, Maine.  Photo Credit: Michael Murphy via Flickr
Nubble Light House in York County, Maine.
Photo Credit: Michael Murphy via Flickr

As the York, Maine, community development director said in a recent article as he surveyed the repeated damage to the seawall and adjacent main shore road: “… the question became, do you continue to repair it or do you let it go?  We missed Sandy, but sooner or later we’re going to have a bad hit. So do you reinforce, accommodate or retreat?” It is also the question that hundreds of communities around the globe are addressing for the future—taking the view that planning for projected sea level in 2030 is worth doing now, especially when it comes to approving development.

In the Gulf of Mexico, coastal U.S. states are still working to both rebuild from Katrina and plan for the future. Projects such the 100-1000 Restore Coastal Alabama in Mobile Bay direct volunteers in rebuilding the oyster reefs that used to buffer the shoreline.  Not only do the new oyster reefs provide food and filtering, but also the marsh grasses fill in behind, serving as both storm buffer and filter for the polluted water running off the land before it reaches the Bay and the life within.

In New Orleans, they are still rebuilding neighborhoods, and tearing down abandoned properties (10,000 houses so far).  Thinking about resilience there means rebuilding coastal habitat for storm buffer purposes, but also about alternative livelihoods to limit the risk for fishing families and others. In a recent interview, Mayor Mitch Landrieu reiterated his view that reconstruction should not be simple replacement in the wake of these events, despite the many tasks that remain.

The native village of Little Diomede, Alaska.  (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer Richard Brahm)
The native village of Little Diomede, Alaska. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer Richard Brahm)

On the west coast of North America, from Baja to the Aleutians, coastal communities are looking at that question of reinforcement, relocation, or accommodation at every level.  From San Diego’s regional strategy to address the effects of sea level rise to the complex process of relocating Alaskan native villages to safer ground, people are looking at ways to preserve their community—culturally, economically, and ecologically—in the face of stronger storms and higher water.

And, of course because there are hundreds of such examples being implemented all around the world, figuring out how to get the best knowledge available can be overwhelming.  That’s where a unique partnership called Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange can help communities.  Founded in 2010 by Island Press and EcoAdapt, and managed by EcoAdapt, CAKE aims to build a shared knowledge base for managing natural and built systems in the face of rapid climate change.  The website aggregates case studies, community forums, and other information exchange tools to help interested parties share information about how people are responding with ingenuity and vision to the threats they face.

At the end of the day, action to reduce the threats and minimize them by reducing the emission of aggravating substances is the ideal; as is acting to promote the use of more sustainable long-term energy providing technology.  At the same time, it would be foolish of these communities, especially coastal and island communities, to avoid making the investment of time and energy to do what they can to plan for a wetter, more unpredictable future, with the participation and support of all of us who love the ocean.