Coastal Conservation
Saving history from rising waters

By Chelsie Papiez

If Capt. John Smith were alive today, the explorer would be surprised to see what has become of the many islands that he and settlers traversed in the 1600s. History, unfortunately, is vanishing right before our eyes.

In the Chesapeake Bay, sea level rise is impacting low-lying coastal lands at twice the global rate. Rising waters have caused the disappearance of 13 barrier islands from the Bay, many played a role in Maryland’s maritime culture and heritage. Chesapeake Bay islands with names such as Sharps, Spry’s and Three Sisters, have all gone the way of Atlantis – their treasures buried forever. These irreplaceable communities were once home to Native Americans, pirates, farmers and watermen.

More and more land is being lost as waters lap onto shorelines and storms erode what is left.

Among the remaining barrier islands, Holland, Hart-Miller, Barren and James are in danger of being swallowed up by the rising Bay.

Like these former fishing and farming island communities, many land-based coastal areas are also being threatened by encroaching waters.

In the beginning

The Chesapeake Bay and its barrier islands were formed by an increase in rising waters due to the melting of glaciers at the end of the last ice age. Melted glaciers inundated Maryland’s flat plains creating the largest estuary in the country. Until the 1900s, waters rose at a slow, but steady pace of 3-feet every thousand years. But over the past 100 years sea level has risen by a foot, endangering islands and coastlines.

This continuous surge in sea level threatens the coastal Bay areas. Many factors including the combination of warm water causing thermal expansion of seawater (as water warms, it expands), the increased volume of runoff from land-based melting ice, sinking land and reduced elevations, have pushed water levels ever higher, resulting in coastal flooding.

To address these impacts, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has developed new land conservation strategies to help preserve the long-term survival of coastal wetlands and protect people and property from storm surge. Without these plans, critical habitat for Maryland’s coastal critters also will be lost.

Saving coastlines

Since 2009, DNR has been developing conservation priorities that help Maryland proactively adapt to climate change and increased storm impacts.

One such project is the Coastal Land Conservation in Maryland: Targeting Tools and Techniques for Sea Level Rise Adaptation and Response, which helps identify coastal habitats that are in jeopardy and assists the State in adapting to sea level rise.

DNR developed this land targeting model and scorecard to help Maryland respond to coastal hazards through the conservation of key coastal habitats. This project helps the State maintain natural resiliency from coastal storm surge and flooding and erosion, which are important steps in protecting Maryland’s communities, resources and economy.

Results from these studies are used to review land acquisition projects, such as the Coastal Estuarine and Land Conservation grant program – that helps protect important coastal and estuarine lands with significant conservation, recreation, ecological, historical and aesthetic values.

Information from these and other programs are added to the State’s land conservation targeting program, GreenPrint. This premiere mapping tool shows how Maryland’s land conservation programs meet their goals and work together to meet shared objectives for land conservation.

All of these efforts are supported by Maryland’s Climate Action Plan Phase I Report, which calls on the State to protect lands that help to improve the Bay’s aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

The project recently gained ground with a new DNR policy requiring all new land acquisitions be reviewed for climate change vulnerability. In addition, the plan also tasks DNR with finding ways to provide coastal habitat protection, including planting more buffers.

Modeling effects

A computer model is used to predict the potential impacts of sea level rise on coastal wetlands for all of Maryland’s coastal counties and Baltimore City. The Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model predicts that with a 3.4 foot sea level rise, the State may see 60 percent of its coastal wetlands disappear by year 2100. Some counties such as Dorchester and Somerset are predicted to lose 95 percent or more of their irregularly flooded brackish marshes.

The Coastal Atlas’ Shorelines mapping tool allows users to see many kinds of data on the possible impacts sea level rise will have on coastal wetlands and shorelines by years 2050 and 2100. Resulting conservation targeting models seek out new land acquisitions in the coastal zones and help identify potential strategies for maintaining coastal habitats.

Moving forward

Maryland is moving forward using the best available data to respond to rising waters and increased shore erosion and storm surge events. This approach will serve as a model to other Coastal States as they plan for how they will adapt to climate change and guard against the impacts of sea level rise and storm surge.

This large-scale undertaking is not impossible. With innovative strategies to keep our coastal regions and its islands intact, these plans will enable future generations of people and wildlife to thrive and not become a part of history lost.

For more information contact Chris Cortina with the Chesapeake and Coastal Service at 410-260-8774.

Chelsie Papiez is a Coastal Resources Planner with DNR’s Chesapeake and Coastal Service.