Strategies Identified to Help Protect Great Marsh, Coastal Communities from Climate Change
The Great Marsh is called the coastal jewel of the Northeast. Its low-lying landscape offers sweeping and beautiful vistas that bring tourists and outdoor recreation to our shores. The organisms that live below the tidal surface create the most important habitat in New England in our marine food chain.
The Great Marsh is a nursery and foraging habitat for hundreds of species of fish, shellfish, birds and mammals. Shore birds, including osprey, herons and egrets, find a rich source of nourishment, while quahogs, mussels, fiddler crabs and oysters live just below its surface.
The threat of climate change for the marsh is not abstract. As rainfall increases and storms become more intense, the marsh serves as a natural treatment system, filtering out pollutants before they reach coastal waters, and soaking up ocean floodwaters before they reach dry land.
“It is becoming abundantly clear that adaptation planning is no longer a luxury,” is the conclusion of a just-released report by the Great Marsh Resiliency Municipal Task Force. “Rather it is a necessity required to ensure public safety and well-being, strengthen economies and communities, and protect critical natural areas that support a wide variety of wildlife.”
One need look no further than Houston, severely flooded this year in part because wetlands had been paved over as roads and housing developments, to see the danger of losing the protection the Great Marsh provides.
Seven coastal Massachusetts communities are located within the 20,000-acre Great Marsh: Salisbury, Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, Ipswich, Essex, and Gloucester. Over 55,000 residents live in these communities and 3.5 million people live near enough to take advantage of its recreational value.
Over 1,000 families derive their economic livelihood from fishing and clamming. Hundreds of businesses depend on the dollars that tourism brings.
The report assesses regional and town-specific threats and identifies strategies that reduce risk and increase the resiliency of the marsh. “Municipal planning must take into account that in 20 to 50 years coastlines will likely look noticeably different than they do today,” the report determines. “From town planners and emergency management personnel to conservation biologists, there is a growing awareness that business as usual will not adequately protect our valued coastal areas.”
Essex County has already seen an increase in extreme precipitation events – defined as a storm dropping more than two inches of rain. During the infamous Mother’s Day rains of 2006, floodwaters wreaked havoc upon many coastal communities; 15 inches of rain fell in four days.
By 2050, areas could experience the present-day “100-year” flood as frequently as every two to three years and possibly once a year by 2100, according to the report.
The most vulnerable areas are also often the most heavily populated. They rely on the Great Marsh to buffer storm damage, reduce coastal erosion, and dampen flooding. “Our climate is simply changing too rapidly for coastal communities to thrive without direct and thoughtful intervention,” the report concludes.
Greenbelt is grateful to several professional and staff photographers whose work is featured prominently within our website.
Thank you Jerry Monkman / ecophotography.com, Lynne Holton, Kindra Clineff, Adrian Scholes and John Raleigh.